why drug testing people who are applying for assistance is a bad idea

I’m tired of hearing about how people applying for assistance should be drug tested.

The legal argument: This is a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. There is no probable cause to justify a search here. This is just stripping away the rights of people who are too poor to protest. It is unconstitutional. I think this is the only thing that needs to be said, but apparently not.

It’s my tax dollars: Please read John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which is in the public domain and you can pop it up instantly with Google and read the whole thing. Locke lays out the basic principles around the justification for taxation in regard to serving the common good. Not everyone agrees on what that means, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay.

An example: I eat vegan. I think veganism is awesome. I think it would be great if more people ate more vegan meals. I have lots of ethical reasons for pursuing veganism. But, I understand that it’s not legitimate for me to demand that money for assistance never pays for animal products because other people get to make their own choices even if I disagree with those choices. Same goes for smoking, drinking, junk food, etc. It’s not your business what other people do with their lives.

As far as what my tax dollars go to, I am unhappy about bailouts for billionaires, weapons of mass destruction, abstinence-only education and other anti-choice nonsense, foreign aid in the form of bullets, and a whole host of other things. Programs for the general health and welfare of my fellow Americans are things I am pleased to help pay for. I want better funding for assistance, education, healthcare, veterans’ benefits, programs for people with disabilities, and generally to live in a world where we are all afforded real opportunities.

I also support maintenance programs for addicts. Addiction is a disease, an impulse control disorder and often at least in part a response to having had a shitty, high-stress life. There is no reason to punish people who are sick, and the folks who think that maintenance is a reward for bad behavior can feel free to do my job for a year and see the people I see and what they’ve been through and how debilitating addiction is and how hard it is to quit. Addiction is not about morality. I have low tolerance for addicts in my personal life, but I think the best thing for them and for our society is to offer them help to quit and in the alternative maintain them and keep them from breaking into my car to steal my fucking shitty stereo or whatever other horrible things they have to do.

Follow the money: This is in effect going to be another giveaway for politicians’ already-rich friends as people who are attempting to get assistance will have to pay for the drug screenings themselves – the plan is not to have the state cover anything, but to impose a greater burden on people who are already struggling to keep food on the table. This money will line the pockets of yet another rich person and will doubtless yield a high number of false positives, requiring people in dire straits to spend even more money they haven’t got to redo the tests. Any save in state money will effectively be given away to private enterprise at the direct expense of people who need help the most.

This is in fact a slippery slope: If this goes forward, it will continue. I don’t want to have to pee in a cup every time I get my driver’s license, and I certainly don’t want to go to the DMV if I have to deal with a private company urine-testing people. Someone whose interest in their bottom line is not going to be concerned about sanitation or accuracy as long as they get paid, and I’m not up for handing out cash to some private company so I can complete my business with the state.

But I had to get drug tested for my job!: The actions of a private company are not the same as the actions of a governing body administering an entitlement program. It’s also bullshit for your employer to piss-test you unless having clean piss is part of the job itself, but that’s not covered by the Constitution. Learn the difference between public and private.

But I picked myself up by my bootstraps!: That’s awesome. Really! Good job. However, if getting out of poverty means getting out of the bottom 30% or so, then not everyone can ever get out because there will always be a bottom 30%. This argument builds on the idea of a permanent underclass that isn’t allowed any slack, whose position is used to reinforce itself. I want to see a world where everyone can have a decent life and not just have poverty turn into more of a punishment than it already is.

They could quit if they really wanted to: Yes, quitting is so easy! I’ve noticed that with my friends who want to quit smoking, how all it takes is for them to be like “wow I want to stop now” and then the next thing I know… they’re still smoking because the withdrawal was too terrible. Quitting seems not to be very easy. It’s certainly not as easy as being a dick about other people’s issues.

They should be in treatment: Wouldn’t it be great if treatment programs were available to anyone who wanted help quitting? I would love that.

Using drugs is illegal: So’s beating your partner. There isn’t a psych test required either, and I must say I think beating your partner is a lot more serious than smoking up. On a more obvious note, the laws against drugs aren’t designed to prevent welfare fraud or as a test to see who is eligible for assistance, so this argument isn’t directly applicable anyway any more than denying benefits to jaywalkers would be.

It offends me: wow, I bet you don’t do anything that offends other people. I bet you’re straight-edge vegan hardcore and give all your money to non-offensive charities and have a negative carbon footprint and glow in the dark. Oh wait, what I actually bet is that you just want to feel like you’re better than someone else. It’s always different when you do it, right?

They’re just lazy: Actually probably a lot of the people you see that seem to fall at first glance into this category are having such bad luck finding jobs in this economy that they’ve given up and gotten pretty depressed, or are disabled in some way that is not visible to you. It’s easy to say that people are in this position because they’re lazy, and it’s an obvious defense mechanism now that our economy is so shitty – we all want to tell ourselves that it can’t happen to us because we work hard, or whatever. But the truth is it could, and responding to our neighbors’ distress by spitting on them and telling them that they’re lazy when some huge fucking corporation moved their job overseas and laid them off and there’s no other work, every shitty Wal-Mart job has 400 overqualified applicants, well, I don’t think it’s that that person is lazy.

On a practical note: Marijuana is fat-soluble. Even if you quit the moment you lose your job and know you’ll have to apply for assistance, you will still test positive for about six weeks. Cocaine, heroin, meth, all that water-soluble stuff? You’ll test clean in a few days. So in some ways this is about punishing people who use the least harmful drug out there more than people who do much heavier stuff.

Who is really being punished by this: It’s easy to say that this is about individual adults since only adults can apply, but many adults apply for assistance in order to provide better care for their children. Further, many assistance programs are only available to people who have kids, like TANF or WIC, so making drug testing a condition of receiving benefits would necessarily be adopting a policy of punishing children for their parents’ behavior. Kids always have to pay for this, but making it a matter of policy is cruel.

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7 Comments on “why drug testing people who are applying for assistance is a bad idea”

  1. […] Remember a while ago when I wrote that post about how drug-testing welfare applicants was a stupid idea? […]

  2. fabio ortiz says:

    thank you for the article. I like many of the points but was mainly curious about the legal issues. the question of whether or not drug tests as a condition of welfare is unconstitutional based on unreasonable search and seizure i find intriguing. There is plenty of case law about drug testing and constitutionality, such as for teacher p…ositions, students at high schools, police officers, etc. Unfortunately i’d need to reasearch or brush up. Welfare in american jurisprudence is considered not a right but an “entitlement.” If the government were to condition access to rights, such as voting, upon drug tests, then the judicial scrutiny against these tests would be extremely high. However, because you do not have a constitutional right to welfare, but rather welfare can be granted or denied according to the mood swings of the legislature, then i would suspect that broad discretion for the legislature, via “rational basis,” would be used to determine wether these welfare drug tests could be constitutionally upheld. In my opinion, these drug tests would be deemed constitutionally permissible.

    • lexscalionis says:

      When I initially wrote the post I had thought I recalled a case where welfare benefits were something people had a property right in and therefore could not be denied without due process, but I can’t find any such case now so I have to assume I was wrong. I do think there’s a distinction to be made between requiring drug tests for employment and requiring them for benefits, but I’m also against drug testing for employment, and testing high school students likewise (testing for performance enhancement drugs for athletes is something I can see, but testing for anything else strikes me as irrelevant morality policing) so I would have to think about how to argue that testing welfare recipients is different. I guess the basic argument would be that technically there are other jobs but not other benefits systems, although this is a weak argument especially in today’s economy and generally fails to address the issue.

  3. […] This is what it sounds like: corrections to my prior post, why drug testing people who are applying for assistance is a bad idea. […]

  4. lexscalionis says:

    CORRECTIONS: I checked into the law around this more closely and wrote a followup post on the constitutionality of drug testing welfare applicants and also of public employees.

    https://dancingattherevolution.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/corrections-to-why-drug-testing-people-who-are-applying-for-assistance-is-a-bad-idea/

  5. […] a followup to my previous post on why drug testing people who are applying for assistance is a bad idea, I’m paying attention to what happens with the fallout since a few people have asked me about […]


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