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Drugs and the dole: No mandatory testing

January 24. 2013 10:38PM

Mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients, proposed by state Rep. Donald LeBrun, R-Nashua, sounds like a good tough-on-crime policy. In reality, it tends to be a waste of money.

Florida law requires drug testing for welfare recipients. State data disclosed last year in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that only 2.6 percent of recipients tested positive for illegal drugs. And the tests cost the state $45,000 more than they saved. The law was suspended by court order, and a trial is scheduled for this March.

Other states that tried similar laws found that the incidence of drug use was small and the savings were smaller than promised, sometimes non-existent. At a legislative hearing on LeBrun's bill, Sarah Mattson of New Hampshire Legal Assistance called it a "very high-cost, very low-return idea." That is an accurate description.

The fiscal note attached to LeBrun's bill shows that it would cost New Hampshire taxpayers up to $239,000 (the state has to pay for the tests of applicants who test negative, which would be almost all of them). The savings are projected to fall between $50,000 to $219,000. High cost, low return.

Then there is the constitutional question. Michigan's mandatory testing program was ruled an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, and this bill would bring a legal challenge on similar grounds.

A policy to test recipients who provide reasonable suspicion that they are using illegal drugs might be cost-effective and constitutional. Blanket testing for all recipients is likely neither and should not be pursued.

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