Eagle editorial: Drug tests not worth it

It seems like common sense that people on public assistance shouldn’t also be on drugs. But Kansas does not need the costs, bureaucracy and lawsuits that could come with passage of a punitive mandate that recipients of welfare or unemployment benefits be subjected to drug screening.

According to Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, those who failed a drug test under his proposal would lose temporary financial assistance until they completed drug treatment and job skills programs. If they failed a second time, their assistance would be suspended for a year, with a third failure bringing a longer suspension.

But testing, drug treatment and job training would all cost money, diminishing whatever taxpayer savings the mandate might seem to promise. And if it isn’t punitive to single out for drug testing the few Kansans who qualify for public assistance – and who receive an average $280 a month – what is it? This just looks like another way to target the neediest Kansans, who’ve already seen the Brownback administration require more active job hunting and reduce from 60 to 48 months the period they can be on assistance.

It will be as troubling if lawmakers require such tests for those entitled to collect unemployment benefits. The state shouldn’t go out of its way to find fault with people who, by definition under the unemployment-insurance program, have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

As the federal judge ruled in stalling Florida’s drug-testing program for welfare applicants: “What the Fourth Amendment requires is that such incursions by the government must be reserved for demonstrated special needs of government or be based on some showing of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.”

Whatever they try to do, Kansas lawmakers should examine the cost-benefit ratio in other states, including some that at least limit the testing to cases where there is reason to believe applicants are drug users.

During the four months of 2011 that Florida’s mandate was enforced, just 108 of 4,086 cash-assistance applicants failed the test, mostly for marijuana use. The state also spent $118,000 reimbursing clean applicants for the average $30 cost of taking the test; that was more money than the state saved by denying benefits to those who failed the test.

Proponents of drug testing those who apply for welfare or unemployment benefits may try to sell it as beneficent, noting a denial of welfare benefits would be only one step. “This is to identify people with substance abuse problems and get them the help and job skills they need to get out and be productive in the job market,” King said.

But as lawmakers examine all angles of such legislation, including what it’s going to cost in time and legal bills, they also should consider what it would say about our state to assume the worst about those who turn to it for help.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman