Work First drug-testing a sham


We have previously expressed our ambivalence when it comes to mandatory drug-testing for people to receive welfare, primarily because we are unaware of any study that shows that money spent on the testing is less than what is saved in extended benefits, therefore putting the taxpayers into the black.

But we easily understand what is the most compelling argument in favor of drug-testing as part of eligibility requirements to receive benefits such as food stamps: Many of you submit to drug-testing to maintain employment, so why should someone who benefits from your tax dollars derived from that employment not have to be tested for drugs as well?

And the second most compelling argument: Drug-testing is an act of benevolence if the penalties are imposed on a graduated scale, beginning with counseling and only climbing to a loss of benefits when all else fails. No one’s life is made better through abusing drugs or alcohol.

If the state’s intent is to test welfare recipients for substance abuse, then, well, administer the tests.

We admit to feeling a bit duped after we attached a large headline to a story a few weeks ago announcing that the state was requiring local Social Services departments to drug-test people to determine eligibility for the state’s Work First program, which provides short-term training and other services that help them find jobs. The story said people currently in the program could face testing as well as about 50 new applicants a month.

We decided to do a follow-up story to see how many people had been tested and how many were found to have a drug or alcohol problem. Color us surprised when we learned that zero out of 40 applicants since the program was implemented locally in early August had been tested for drugs or alcohol abuse.

The catch — and perhaps our early reporting wasn’t extensive enough — is that beneficiaries and applicants are only tested for drugs after they answer 20 questions as part of a screening process. The drug tests are then administered only to those identified as potential abusers.

Here is a sampling of the questions:

For alcohol:

— How often do you have a drink containing alcohol? (0) Never; (1) Monthly (2); 2-4 times a month; (3) 2-3 times a week; (4) 4 or more times a week.

— How often during the last year have you found that you were unable to stop drinking once you started? (0) never; (1) less than monthly; (2) monthly; (3) weekly; (4) daily or almost daily.

— How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because of drinking? (0) never; (1) less than monthly; (2) monthly; (3) weekly; (4) daily or almost daily.

For drugs:

— Have you used drugs other than those required for medical reasons? Yes or no.

— Have you ever had blackouts or flashbacks as a result of drug use? Yes or no.

— Have you engaged in illegal activities in order to obtain drugs? Yes or no.

It would be easy for someone who is abusing drugs or alcohol to negotiate these questions and the other 14 without raising a red flag. Remember few are better at masking behavior than people who suffer with substance abuse.

Again, we aren’t calling for drug testing, but if that is the intent, then administer tests. If cost is a primary concern, then do so randomly so that the threat can act as a deterrent. And if we drug test, provide counseling for first offenses, raise penalties for additional offenses, but continue to protect the children, who are innocent.

The drug-testing system now in place is a folly, but it does cost the state money and time that could be better spent elsewhere.

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