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Welfare drug testing laws gain momentum

Utah was the first to make it law in 2012, but half the country is considering proposals that require welfare recipients to pass drug tests.

Twenty-five states are looking at making drug testing part of the application process for the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several states have proposed extending the requirement to recipients of Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps). Two states, Ohio and Tennessee, are considering denying or restricting welfare to those convicted of drug felonies.

The issue has also come up in the presidential race. Mitt Romney has called drug testing welfare recipients an "excellent idea." Newt Gingrich told Yahoo News he considered it a good way to curb drug use and lower public costs.

Federal rules permit states to test welfare recipients for controlled substances, but efforts to pass such laws have been met with resistance. In 2003, a Michigan Court of Appeals ruled it was unconstitutional to subject every welfare recipient to a drug test without reason to suspect drug use. Shortly after Florida passed its law last year, The American Civil Liberties Union sued and won. The case is now in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Supporters of drug testing bills say the rules will help people avoid substance abuse problems and eliminate fraud.

In an op-ed published recently in USA Today, Arizona Rep. Kimberly Yee argued states are obligated to hold welfare recipients accountable for their actions.

"Receiving a public benefit is a privilege, not a right," she wrote. "The debate on drug testing welfare recipients is simply about the responsible use of tax dollars."

An individual may have to take a drug test to get a job in the private sector, she pointed out.

"For business owners, this practice holds employees accountable for their actions, and if they do not pass the drug test, there is a very simple consequence: no job," she wrote. "Similarly, if states like Arizona choose to drug test those who are on welfare and drug use is found, the consequence should be the same: no further taxpayer assistance."

USA Today's editorial board countered by ripping apart Arizona's testing program, which was implemented on a trial basis in 2009. Of the 87,000 people subjected to the program so far, just one tested positive.

"If savings are the goal, Arizona's program is a bust," USA Today concluded. "Disqualifying the single drug abuser saved the state $560 — out of the $200 million in benefits paid out since testing started."

Critics say the drug testing laws are a result of stereotyping the poor.

"Suggesting that they are drug users or otherwise worthy of suspicion unfairly singles the group out for disdain," wrote Joy Moses, Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. "And it opens the door to cutting funds that provide basic subsistence to vulnerable children and their mothers."