Florida's Drug Testing for Public Assistance Benefits Ruled Unconstitutional

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January 7, 2014 - By Maggie Taylor

On New Year’s Eve, a federal judge dealt a blow to the war on America’s poor before ringing in 2014. Judge Mary S. Scriven of the U.S. District Court in Orlando deemed Florida’s law requiring welfare applicants to undergo mandatory drug testing unconstitutional. This ruling deals a significant blow to state efforts that aim to strip the poor and needy of their rights to privacy in a misguided attempt to save taxpayer money. This not only makes permanent a ban on testing welfare recipients in Florida, but will ultimately affect similar laws nationwide.

In addition to facing challenges in court, drug testing laws have been found to be costly and ineffective, yielding pathetically low results. In Florida, only 2.6 percent of applicants tested positive for narcotics. In Utah, the state spent $30,000 to identify just 12 drug users among its welfare applicants.

The Drug Policy Alliance has long opposed this suspicionless testing of applicants for public benefits. Together with American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, Physicians and Lawyers for National Drug Policy, the Legal Action Center, Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, National Employment Law Project, Child Welfare Organizing Project, and National Advocates for Pregnant Women, DPA filed an amicus brief in the Florida case challenging the random drug testing program. The brief exposed as baseless a key assumption underlining Florida’s law: that persons in need for financial assistance are more likely to use and abuse illicit drugs than other segments of the population.

DPA has argued that drug testing schemes do not achieve any of their purported goals of protecting the well-being of children, promoting the employability of person on public assistance and assuring fiscal integrity, and do not pass the “special needs” test that is required to justify otherwise unconstitutional searches by government officials. Judge Scriven agreed, finding that there was no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in the Florida case could be constitutionally applied.

This ruling could not come at a more opportune time, as the federal government is considering expanding the states’ ability to drug test food stamp applicants. Rather than expanding the drug war’s reach into the lives of vulnerable Americans, states must now face the legal reality that these proposals will accomplish little more than costly and continual litigation. The writing is on the wall: requiring people to submit to drug testing for no reason other than being poor and in need of assistance is not going to pass constitutional muster. It’s not fair, it’s not cost effective, and it’s unreasonable.

Maggie Taylor is a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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