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CLASP Policy Brief

CLASP Policy Brief

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Published by: webmaster@drugpolicy.org on Feb 17, 2012
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 Mandatory drug testing for parents applying for orreceiving assistance from the Temporary Assistancefor Needy Families (TANF) program has beenproposed repeatedly over the past few years.Legislators in at least 27 states have proposedsuspicionless drug testing with some even extendingit to recipients of other public benefits as well, suchas unemployment insurance, medical assistance andfood assistance.
At the federal level, Senator DavidVitter (R
LA) has offered bills and amendmentsmultiple times to impose mandatory drug testing onTANF recipients and deny them eligibility if theyfailed a second test after treatment. The most recentis
The Drug Free Families Act of 2011
(S 83).
Lastsummer, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) proposedmandatory drug testing for TANF and unemploymentinsurance recipients.Proposals for mandatory drug testing of TANFrecipients are based on stereotypes and not evidence.Proponents often claim that drug testing will savemoney; however, this is based on a false assumptionthat many applicants will be denied benefits.Random testing is a costly, flawed and inefficientway of identifying recipients in need of treatment.Better alternatives exist and are already beingimplemented to address drug abuse among TANFbeneficiaries and ultimately reduce their barriers towork. Moreover, universal random drug testing maywell be unconstitutional. In 2003,
Michigan’s drug
testing program was struck down as a violation of the
Fourth Amendment’s protection against searches
without reasonable cause. Finally, because sanctionsfor noncompliance put vulnerable children at risk,state and federal policymakers should not enact morebarriers to a safety net program that protectslow
income children and families, especially duringan historic economic downturn and decline in thelabor market.Research finds little evidence that drug use and/orabuse is particularly prevalent among TANFbeneficiaries. Although recent data is limited, anddefinitions and populations vary,
studies have putthe portion of the TANF recipient population with asubstance abuse disorder at anywhere between fiveand 27 percent,
and those reporting illicit drug usearound 20 percent or less.
 In 1996, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse andAlcoholism found
that “proportions of welfare
recipients using, abusing, or dependent on alcohol orillicit drugs are consistent with proportions of boththe adult U.S. population and adults who do notreceive welfare.
Furthermore, Michigan, the onlystate to have imposed random drug testing on TANFbeneficiaries, found that only 10 percent of recipientstested positive for illicit drugs, with 3 percent testing
 positive for “hard” drugs, such as cocaine.
Theserates are consistent with its general population.
 While other studies show that TANF recipients aresomewhat more likely to have tried illicit drugs orhave substance abuse disorders than the generalpopulation, the fact remains that a large majority of recipients do not use drugs.For a small group of TANF recipients, substanceabuse is a significant barrier to employment. Onesurvey of TANF directors, found that they consideredsubstance abuse the third most significant barrier towork for recipients.
States do already have policies
 to identify and treat such individuals. Substanceabuse problems tend to co
occur with mental healthand social problems. TANF recipients with substanceabuse problems have been shown to have a highincidence of mental and social disorders.
Manyindividuals turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to tryto control symptoms of mental illness.Random, widespread drug testing is an inefficient useof taxpayer money as multiple states havedetermined. It is costly to administer, especiallywhen precautions are taken to prevent false results,and is not cost-effective for identifying true cases of substance abuse. Testing should be limited to caseswhere agencies have good cause to believe that aclient may be using drugs, and where the client hasacknowledged use and agreed to participate in atreatment program.Administrative costs associated with drug testing aresignificant, and the tests themselves each costanywhere from $35
These costs are increasedby the need to repeat tests to confirm results andavoid false positives. Therefore, in order to providedue process protections against false positives, manystates such as Idaho and Utah would have to requireconfirmation of results, meaning human serviceagencies may have to conduct repeat tests of splitsamples before imposing sanctions.
It is not costeffective to test all applicants or participants,regardless of whether they show any indications of drug use. Since few substance abusers are identifiedin tests, but many are tested, the cost of catching adrug abuser may run between $20,000 and $77,000per person, as businesses and government employershave found when they have done testing.
 Furthermore, chemical drug tests have moresignificant shortcomings as they cannot identifyalcohol or prescription drug abuse, but rather only thespecific chemicals for which samples are tested.More importantly, they cannot distinguish betweenoccasional substance users and substance abusers.While drug abuse problems pose a barrier to work and economic advancement
, drug use alone doesnot appear to have a significant impact onemployment outcomes and government service usagerates. In a study of Florida TANF recipients,individuals who tested positively for drug use hadearnings and were employed at nearly the same levelas individuals who had tested negatively.
In anotherstudy, drug use was as prevalent among employedTANF recipients as among the unemployed.
This isalso true of the general population, as most drugusers have full
time employment.
 Many advocates for drug testing all recipients implythat state human services agencies are doing nothingto identify substance abuse among recipients, butproven alternatives to chemical tests have beendeveloped and are already being implemented. Morethan half of states responding to a survey in 2002reported that they were screening for drug abuse.
Most states use a “screen
refer” method of 
detection and treatment promotion.
Typically, apaper
pencil test is administered. One such test,the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory(SASSI), has an accuracy rate of between 89
97percent, can distinguish between drug users andabusers, and can detect alcohol abuse.
TheOklahoma Department of Human Services found thata questionnaire they administered identified 94 out of 100 drug abusers.
Paper tests and caseworkerobservation also have the benefit of being less
 intrusive and costly than drug testing when there isnot yet a reasonable basis to require a drug test.Still, research has shown that this method of detection can be improved. Many of the workersadministering drug screening are inexperienced.Eighty percent of states in a 2002 survey reportedthat they assign this task to welfare caseworkers, asopposed to mental health specialists, and nearlythree
quarters reported that they provided less thaneight hours of training for workers.
Some stateshave developed more involved alternatives to detectdrug abuse. Evaluating an intensive case management(ICM) referral system in New Jersey, researchersfound that TANF recipients with a substance usedisorder who participated in the ICM system weremore likely to abstain from drugs and findemployment than those assigned to a screen
 Many states do impose drug testing requirements onTANF recipients who have been identified as at highrisk of substance abuse. This may includeparticipants who have agreed to participate intreatment in lieu of other work activities. Some statesalso require clean drug tests as a condition of restoring benefits to recipients who have beenconvicted of drug
related felonies.
 Only one state
has ever made all adultTANF recipients submit to random drug tests. In
 Marchwinski v. Howard 
, the ACLU challenged
Michigan’s across
-the-board testing and the districtcourt ruled in September 2000 that it violated therecipients Fourth Amendment rights againstunreasonable searches. The U.S. Court of Appealsfor the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision, but thenwithdrew the reversal in 2003 after rehearing the caseand splitting the vote.
 Random searches are only justified if they meet ahigh legal standard. In general, individualizedsuspicion is necessary to perform a search.
Statesmay and do impose drug testing requirements onindividuals who have been identified as substanceabusers, or as a condition of reinstating benefits foran individual convicted of a drug
related felony.However, simply receiving cash assistance is not abasis for suspicion of substance use and the statemust have some reason to believe that a particularindividual may be using drugs.Many of the proposals call for denying assistance toanyone who fails a drug test. Imposing additionalsanctions on welfare recipients will have negativeimpacts on children. Welfare sanctions and benefitdecreases have been shown to increase the risk thatchildren will be hospitalized and face foodinsecurity.
Because TANF benefits are so low (lessthan 1/3 the poverty level in the median state
children suffer even when only the “adult portion” of 
the benefit is eliminated. Without these benefits,
families may be unable to meet children’s core basic
needs, such as housing and clothing. The impact onchildren may be even greater now because of few jobopenings and family budgets already stretched due tothe recession.Sanctions may also interfere with the treatmentprocess by deterring people from reporting an abuseissue and seeking treatment. Also, treatment andrecovery are not a one
time event. Many peoplerequire a series of treatment sessions and relapserates are high.
If TANF recipients are sanctioned,they may lose access to treatment programs that maytake time and repeated efforts to show results.

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