Pennsylvania’s state legislators — who last session brought us bills reducing social-service budgets and restricting personal freedoms but failed to pass a transportation funding package or tackle pension reform — are eager to get a jump on the business of lawmaking for the coming year. Among the flurry of proposals already unveiled is one by Rep. Tim Krieger (R-Westmoreland) to require drug-testing of all applicants for public assistance.
This controversial proposal has been on the table before. A version of the law, passed in 2011 and rolled out as a pilot program last year, mandated drug-testing of welfare applicants convicted of drug felonies in the past five years. It was billed as a cost-saving measure, and that drew criticism. After all, when Florida imposed a drug-testing program for welfare recipients, its program caught few users and actually cost the state $45,780, notes American Civil Liberties Union Pennsylvania legislative director Andy Hoover. That’s not to mention the legal costs it incurred while defending the law against a (successful) lawsuit by the ACLU.
Before Krieger’s plan moves forward, it might be instructive to ask: What has drug-testing of Pennsylvania’s convicted drug felons turned up so far? According to Department of Public Welfare statistics, 28 people took the drug test in the program’s initial phase. One failed, and one declined the test and dropped off the welfare rolls; 26 passed. So one could deduce that around 7 percent had used drugs, less than estimated rates of drug use in the overall U.S. population. Of course, this sample is meager, which is one argument against introducing a broader drug-testing program. “There are multiple issues, some practical, some legal,” says Hoover — and a legal challenge, he says, would be inevitable. “Any time the government is taking a person’s bodily sample, that is a search. The government has certain requirements if it wants to search someone: They have to have some suspicion they’ve committed a crime. Being poor is not an indication that you may have committed a crime.”