Drug-testing of welfare recipients nets 37 positives in first six months

Six months after the rollout of a controversial law to drug-test people applying for public benefits, the Tennessean reports only a small fraction of low-income Tennesseans seeking financial assistance have tested positive for illegal drugs.

Thirty-seven of 16,017 applicants for the Families First cash assistance program between July and December tested positive for illegal substances, according to the Department of Human Services.

Another 81 lost their chance to receive benefits because they discontinued the application process at some point between the time they were required to fill out a three-item drug screening questionnaire and completing their application.

Opponents of the new rules say that they single out poor people for drug testing over other recipients of federal benefits — such as veterans, college students getting low interest loans or farmers with crop subsidies.

“You are requiring more than 16,000 people to be screened for drug use based on the assumption that people who receive public assistance are more likely to use illegal drugs,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “There’s no evidence to indicate that’s true.

“We support the need to combat drug addiction, but if the state truly wants to combat addiction, they should use their resources to fund drug treatment programs rather than blocking access to public benefit applicants, because we’re talking about providing for families,” said Weinberg, noting the ACLU plans to challenge the law in court.

Backers of the law, however, said they are pleased with the results so far.

“That’s 37 people who should not be receiving taxpayer subsidies, because they are not behaving as they are supposed to,” said state Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin. “If the taxpayers are going to support you there are certain criteria you need to adhere to. This is a good use of taxpayer money.”

Tennessee is one of 12 states that have enacted laws requiring drug screening and testing of welfare applicants, but it’s a trend picking up steam elsewhere. Similar bills have been introduced in at least 10 other states so far this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

…In the first six months of the program, the state spent $5,295 to administer the program, including $4,215 to pay for the drug tests….Of the 37 who tested positive, 25 were referred to a drug treatment program.