Mousa Alshanteer: DSS drug test law is improper

Sep. 03, 2013 @ 04:12 PM

Last month, state legislators ratified and presented to Gov. McCrory N.C. House Bill 392—legislation that would give the Department of Social Services permission to drug test welfare applicants. The bill was one of two vetoed by the governor only days later—a decision which drew the ire of N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, House Majority Leader Edger Starnes and other Republican legislators.
The ratified version of the bill would require the Department of Social Services to verify whether an applicant for or recipient of Work First or Food and Nutrition Services benefits is a fleeing felon or a probation or parole violator, deny such benefits to those found to be fleeing felons or probation or parole violators and require drug testing of applicants for or recipients of Work First program assistance.
The first two provisions sound reasonable, but the third provision—along with its conditions for “reasonable suspicion” of drug use — lends itself to various problems.
To begin with, the financial obligation required to implement such drug tests is accounted for neither in the bill nor in the final 2013-2015 state budget. In light of the expected decrease in government revenue due to recently implemented tax reform, compelling the state to potentially enter a period of deficit spending is not a practical way to approach welfare reform.
In addition, the conditions for establishing “reasonable suspicion,” as outlined in the legislation, are not sufficient enough to mandate drug screening under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. Indeed, after just four months of implementation, a federal judge ruled that a similar law in Florida was unconstitutional. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed and, as a result, Florida was obligated to temporarily end its drug testing of welfare applicants. The enactment of a comparable law in Georgia has since been halted, and Michigan’s drug testing program was recently deemed unconstitutional by the state’s Court of Appeals.
Though the Florida, Georgia and Michigan laws required blanket testing of welfare applicants and, thus, were ruled unconstitutional, N.C. House Bill 392 does not specify that the presence of warrants and drug convictions is the only condition for “reasonable suspicion” — meaning that the drug tests, if imposed, might constitute unreasonable searches and seizures.
What is more, similar efforts in other states have proven costly and ineffective. Since a recent law in Utah went into effect last year, the state has spent nearly $30,000 testing 4,730 applicants—only nine of which tested positive for substance abuse. A similar program in Arizona tested 87,000 applicants and found only one drug user. Likewise, a program in Florida found that only 108 applicants—out of 4,086—tested positive for substance abuse. Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services also denied benefits to 29 applicants—out of 1,300—who either failed a drug test or refused to comply with demands for additional testing.
In all four aforementioned states, however, the amount saved by welfare disqualifications and deterred applications does not compensate for the amount spent on drug test purchases, laboratory fees, facility modifications, compensation for increased work hours and legal fees. In fact, a similar proposal in Virginia was unsuccessful after it was determined that its implementation would cost the state $1.5 million – a net loss of $1.27 million even after accounting for the $229,000 in savings from deterred applications and welfare disqualifications.
In order to ensure that the efforts of state legislators were not in vain, however, Gov. McCrory enforced the first two, and more reasonable, provisions of the bill by signing an executive order directing the Department of Health and Human Services to run criminal background checks of applicants for and recipients of Work First and Food and Nutrition Services program assistance. Those found to be fleeing felons and probation or parole violators would be ineligible to receive such assistance.
Gov. McCrory called for a veto override session on Tuesday, thereby giving legislators a chance to implement the proposed drug testing of welfare applicants. As of this writing on Tuesday, the Legislature was debating an override vote. Since this proposal is fiscally irresponsible, potentially intrusive and ultimately ineffective, however, I hope legislators on both sides of the aisle voted to uphold the governor’s veto.

Mousa Alshanteer is a sophomore at Duke University and a 2012 graduate of High Point Central High School. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author. Contact him at mousa.alshanteer@duke.edu.