By Phillip Smith
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) Wednesday signed into law a bill, House Bill 2388, that requires welfare applicants to be screened for possible drug use and drug tested upon suspicion they are using. They would be denied benefits if they test positive. The screening requirement is designed to surmount constitutional objections to mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of public benefits applicants and recipients.
In the past two years, two states, Florida and Georgia, have passed laws requiring mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of welfare applicants. The Florida law has been blocked by a federal judge’s temporary order as she considers whether to declare it an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendments proscription against warrantless searches. Civil liberties and civil rights advocates in Georgia have vowed similar action against the law there when it goes into effect July 1. An earlier Michigan attempt to impose suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients was found unconstitutional by a divided federal appeals court it 2003. That ruling was not appealed.
Several other states have passed public benefits drug testing laws with a screening process to create “reasonable suspicion” that a given individual might be a drug user. Those include Arizona and Missouri last year and Utah and Tennessee this year. The Tennessee bill has yet to be signed by the governor, but he has said he will do so. None of these state laws have yet faced legal challenges.
The Oklahoma law takes effect November 1 and is aimed at adults applying for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Applicants who refuse to take the drug test or who test positive will be denied benefits. Applicants who test positive and then undergo a drug treatment program — at their own expense — can reapply for benefits after six months.
Child-only cases and cases where the parent is underage would not have to be drug tested. If a parent is denied benefits, the bill allows for payments to be made to an alternative payee.
Under an amendment passed in the Senate, the state will pay for the cost of drug testing. The bill originally called for applicants to pick up the tab.
“House Bill 2388 will help ensure welfare checks are not being used to pay for drugs. Hard working taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize drug abuse, and this bill will help to ensure they are not,” Fallin said in a signing statement.
“Additionally, HB 2388 helps to preserve the mission of state-funded welfare — to provide a social safety net helping the unemployed and needy get back on their feet, find work and support their families,” the Republican governor continued. “Unfortunately, drug abuse prevents many recipients of welfare from achieving any of these goals. Drug addiction and illegal drug use contribute to child abuse and child neglect. They also make it difficult to find and hold a job. For all these reasons it is important for drug users and those with substance abuse problems to seek treatment rather than simply being handed a check from Oklahoma taxpayers.”
Oklahoma Democrats opposed the bill, with Sen. Jim Wilson (D-Tahlequah) calling it “poor policy” and “mean-spirited” during earlier debates, and Sen. Tom Ivester (D-Sayre) questioning why only one population that receives state assistance should be subjected to drug testing. But their Republican colleagues weren’t listening.