Illegal drug use is a serious problem in our country. The impact on families and communities can be devastating. From dealers to addicts, the societal costs are staggering.
So it’s easy to support the general concept that people using illegal drugs should be caught and they should not receive public assistance. No one condones drug use as acceptable behavior.
As expected, Gov. Scott Walker announced last week he will include drug testing in his upcoming budget. The intent is to require certain people receiving public assistance or unemployment benefits to be tested.
Critical details are forthcoming, because it’s unclear at this point who would be subject to the testing. Walker’s spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said drug testing the unemployed would apply only for people “for whom suitable work is only available in certain occupations.” A list of those occupations is unknown. About 40,000 people in Wisconsin receive unemployment benefits.
Walker also wants to seek permission from the federal government to test adults without dependents on FoodShare or who receive Medicaid. There are 480,000 adults in Wisconsin on FoodShare and about 141,000 childless adults on Medicaid.
Walker is walking a fine line, as federal courts have struck down similar measures as unconstitutional in other states, including Florida. Federal rules do allow drug testing as part of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and bans providing that assistance to people convicted of a felony for possession, use or distribution of illegal drugs. But Wisconsin is one of five states with permission from the federal government that does provide benefits to drug felons as long as they comply with drug testing requirements.
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Walker said those who fail drug tests would be offered free drug treatment and job training. We would hope that those who choose to enter treatment would also be given other public assistance so they can eat and take care of themselves. But what happens to those who test positive who don’t receive treatment?
Data from Florida during the four months when drug testing was in place showed only 2.6 percent of the applicants tested positive. The state estimated it had an illegal drug use rate of 8 percent. It cost the state more money to implement the program than it saved.
Wisconsin’s cost estimates will be part of the budget, but Patrick says the program is expected to result in savings. How much and when Wisconsin will see those savings is unknown. We need to see the numbers.
The proposal certainly has punitive measures, but if the concern is to make sure that anyone who receives public money is clean, why not expand the program? Why not require any employee of the state and elected officials to also pass drug tests?
Some sort of drug testing may be part of the solution, but let’s see the details.