A Federal court of appeals recently struck down a Florida law requiring welfare recipients to be drug tested in order to receive benefits. Described as one of the harshest laws in the nation, it required all welfare recipients to be tested regardless of whether or not they were suspected of drug use.
The court’s decision was a result of the fact that Florida was unable to prove a need for the law. The court ruled that there was no reason poor people should be under more suspicion of being criminals than anyone else. The court cited the 4th Amendment, saying that poverty shouldn’t cause people to lose their right to privacy.
Florida governor Rick Scott claimed the law had been designed to protect the children of welfare recipients. By withholding benefits from people who tested positive for drugs, the law was supposed to motivate parents to get off drugs or not start using drugs at all. During the time the law was in use, approximately 1% of applicants discontinued their application before taking the urine test.
Governor Scott also believed this would lessen the burden on taxpayers by limiting the amount of benefits given out. However, in practice the law actually ended up costing the taxpayers more money than before. So many urine tests were being conducted that the cost was actually greater than giving benefits to the few people who failed testing.
The law unfairly discriminated against poor people, and also reinforced a unfair stereotype that addiction primarily affects the poor. In reality, substance abuse occurs in all socioeconomic groups. In recent years, drugs like heroin have been abused in affluent suburban neighborhoods, and cocaine continues to be the drug of choice for many wealthy people. Of course, alcoholism is one of the most commonly abused drugs, and the wealthy are just as likely to abuse alcohol as any other social class.
Future laws will have to measure up to the precedent set by this Federal court of appeals. Many experts believe blanket drug testing will not be written into law in the future. While the defeat of this law may have been a victory for civil liberties, drug addiction and substance abuse continue to affect many Florida families.