North Carolina: Drug testing for benefits raises tempers, questions

1357247569-357-117x165A proposal to require applicants for federal benefits to pay for drug testing raised tempers and questions in a Senate Judiciary 2 Committee hearing Tuesday morning.

Senate Bill 594, sponsored by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, would require applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – known as Work First in North Carolina – to pay out of pocket for drug testing for all controlled substances.

If the tests come back negative, the applicant would be reimbursed.  If the tests come back positive, the applicant would be denied benefits until he or she has entered and paid for drug treatment.

Current law requires social service agencies to work with and identify clients who may have substance abuse problems, including alcohol, and refer them to treatment. The new proposal would require blanket testing for any applicant 18 and older.

“If you have money to buy drugs, you have money to buy food, you have money to support your family,” Davis said. “You don’t deserve public assistance.”

Davis said applicants who don’t use drugs “will gladly” find the money for the tests, knowing they will be reimbursed.

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, asked how applicants would afford the tests.

“If they’re already there because they need food stamps, where are they going to come up with that money? They’re scraping the bottom,” Kinnaird said.

Staff attorney Hal Pell confirmed that multiple drug tests would be needed to screen for all legally controlled substances. The cost could easily exceed $100.

“Our goal is not to penalize poor people, but to get people who are using drugs to get help,” Davis said. “There’s some real teeth in this.”

It’s unclear where the reimbursement money would come from. Staff attorneys couldn’t immediately say whether federal TANF dollars can be used to pay for drug testing. If not, the state would have to find the money elsewhere.

The bill would also require agencies to inform applicants that they will not be required to submit to a test if they do not apply.

Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, questioned whether the purpose of that is to “scare away” applicants.

Davis denied it. “These people are sharp enough to understand: If you’re on drugs, you may want to consider delaying your application for benefits,” he said.

Tempers flared after Bill Rowe with the N.C. Justice Center told lawmakers similar legislation in Florida and Michigan has been struck down by courts as unconstitutional.

“Our Fourth Amendment doesn’t allow suspicion-less testing of people,” Rowe said. “There’s no decision that says this is OK.”

Rowe also cited studies that show drug use is no more common among TANF recipients than in the general public.

Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, argued with Rowe.

“You’re OK with (drug users) getting federal dollars if they’ve had a doobie and get the munchies and need more food stamps?” Tucker asked. “Sit down.”

Bryant said the bill exposes its supporters’ “prejudice,” noting that it affects “mostly poor people and a significant number of them people of color.”

“There’s a lot of people getting government money,” she said. “Let’s not start with poor people on this. Let’s start with ourselves. When you run for election, you should have to take a drug test. If we give a scholarship, you should have to take a drug test.”

“I really reject the notion of injecting race into this thing,” Davis shot back. “I’m sick and tired of it. This is not a racial bill.”

“Folks are concerned about civil liberties,” said an emotional Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, pounding the table. “I saw a kid I grew up with lose his life to drugs. We have got to do something. I’m sick of this bickering about small stuff. The important thing is fixing this.”

The bill passed the committee on party lines. It now goes to the Senate Health Committee.

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