Four, so far, blocked from welfare benefits by new TN law requiring drug testing

A controversial new Tennessee law to drug-test applicants for public benefits has already resulted in the Department of Human Services disqualifying people seeking aid since the rules went into effect July 1, reports The Tennessean.

Four people were turned down because they refused to participate in any part of the drug screening process. Six other people willingly submitted to a drug test, and one tested positive. Officials with the Department of Human Services say they are making contact with that applicant for further action — which could include referral to a drug treatment program as a condition of receiving benefits or disqualification if the person refuses.

The 10 people affected by the new rules are a small fraction of the 812 people who applied for Tennessee Families First cash assistance program since the measure took effect. The vast majority — 802 — passed the initial written drug screening.

But opponents and backers of the law say they are keeping a close eye on how the rules affect low-income welfare applicants: Will they root out drug users who could potentially abuse the small cash stipend intended to aid families with children? Or are the new rules an unconstitutional intrusion into the privacy rights of poor Tennesseans?

“I think this is a positive step, and I hope that individuals get the help they need,” said state Sen. Stacey Campfield, author of the law, who noted that new rules direct state officials to connect applicants who test positive to treatment programs.

But Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the law is unconstitutional and the group intends to challenge it in court.

“We don’t test individuals who are seeking government support like farmers, veterans and students, so we have to take a step back and question why limited-income people are being targeted and have to submit to these intrusive searches,” Weinberg said.