Pubdate: Sun, 25 Jan 2015
Source: Missoulian (MT)
Copyright: 2015 Missoulian


Sometimes, Montana benefits from waiting and watching other states 
try new legislation before adopting it ourselves - or opting not to 
repeat their failures.

Legislation requiring people who apply for certain kinds of public 
assistance to pass a drug test is an excellent case in point. In 
state after state, it has proven to be costly, unconstitutional and 
ineffective. It's also, as Montana Women Vote's Sarah Howell 
described it last week, offensive.

Howell was speaking specifically about House Bill 200, which was 
introduced in the House Human Services Committee of the Montana 
Legislature last week. Rep. Randy Pinocci, R-Sun River, said 
thousands of Montanans have asked him to offer this legislation, and 
that the goal of the requirement is to protect children.

HB 200 requires all those applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy 
Families to answer a questionnaire concerning drug use. If state 
employees who review the questionnaires determine that drug abuse is 
"likely," the applicant will be required to pass a drug test in order 
to receive assistance.

Those who don't pass the drug test would have to agree to complete a 
30-day treatment program in order to receive public assistance. 
Presumably, the state would provide and pay for this treatment. 
Meanwhile, the children of those who don't pass drug tests could 
receive assistance through a third party.

In Montana and in other states that have considered similar 
legislation, supporters of tying drug tests to state welfare argue 
that it helps get drug addicts the treatment they need, and ensures 
that taxpayers aren't subsidizing individuals who cannot be employed 
due to drug dependency.

However, the state already requires that TANF participants be 
employed or actively seeking employment, training, or treatment for 
substance or mental health problems. Participants have to negotiate, 
sign and demonstrate compliance with a plan outlining the actions 
they will take to become financially independent. The state program 
has, in fact, a rather lengthy list of eligibility requirements.

And, assuming that a drug addict would be inclined to fill out a drug 
questionnaire truthfully, the reality is that very few welfare 
recipients are drug abusers.

In Florida, which briefly required all welfare applicants to pass a 
drug test, a whopping 2.6 percent tested positive - far lower than 
the 8 percent of drug abusers in the general population. But 
Florida's law was ruled unconstitutional in 2013. In the meantime, it 
cost that state more than $45,000 to cover four months of testing.

Utah, one of the states whose law the Montana bill is modeled after, 
turned up only 12 positive drug tests out of 4,730 applicants. 
Unfortunately, in the process of finding these dozen drug abusers, it 
forced 466 other people in need of temporary public assistance to 
submit to a drug test.

Because of Utah's requirement, hundreds of people had their dignity 
insulted and their privacy invaded in their hour of need - and for 
nothing. They were not drug users.

Let's not take Montana down that road. Those who happen to have 
fallen on hard times and need a little temporary help are no more nor 
less deserving than anyone else who receives state benefits - 
including state legislators.

In what we assume is a pointed piece of tongue-in-cheek, Missoula's 
Democratic Rep. Ellie Hill has suggested adding an amendment to 
Pinocci's bill requiring all Montana lawmakers to pass drug tests 
before they can receive benefits. Pinocci reportedly responded by 
saying he would consider the idea.

Instead of screening every Montanan for potential drug use and 
requiring a drug test every time the state provides a benefit, let's 
operate under the assumption that most Montanans are not drug abusers 
looking to scam the system. Let's treat all Montanans, be they 
legislators or welfare applicants, with the respect and dignity they deserve.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom