Drug Testing of Safety-Net Applicants Stigmatizes Poor Families

Mar 01, 2013

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Lavanya Mohan

This week, the federal 11th circuit court of appeals upheld the injunction on Florida’s suspicionless drug testing program. The decision will continue to prevent Florida from implementing its 2011 suspicionless, or universal, drug testing law on TANF applicants.  The court decision affirmed in strong language that poverty alone does not provide reasonable suspicion for drug testing safety-net program applicants.  CLASP has long held that, in addition to the constitutional concerns, suspicionless drug testing is costly and ineffective at identifying substance abusers.

The question is not whether drug use is detrimental to the goals of the TANF program, which it might be. Instead, the only pertinent inquiry is whether there is a substantial special need for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of TANF recipients when there is no immediate or direct threat to public safety, when those being searched are not directly involved in the frontlines of drug interdiction, when there is no public school setting where the government has a responsibility for the care and tutelage of its young students, or when there are no dire consequences or grave risk of imminent physical harm as a result of waiting to obtain a warrant if a TANF recipient, or anyone else for that matter, is suspected of violating the law. We conclude that, on this record, the answer to that question of whether there is a substantial special need for mandatory suspicionless drug testing is ‘no.’”

-U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Published Opinion on Lebron v. Florida

As of February 2013, at least 16 state legislatures have brought forward proposals related to drug screening and testing TANF applicants with at least five more bills proposing drug testing on Unemployment Insurance applicants.  However, while a few of these bills call for suspicionless testing, as in Florida, most are proposing to screen applicants for drug use by administering a questionnaire, and drug test only those whose screenings indicate a likelihood of being a substance user.  

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