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more drug testing

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    More evidence on the ever increasing illicit drug testing market......

    Bill Would Require Some to Pass Drug Test to Get Aid
    Supporters Say State Must Curb Abuse, but Critics Think People in Crisis Need Help, Not Punishment

    By Chris L. Jenkins
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 19, 2008; Page B05

    Some welfare applicants and beneficiaries would be required to pass a drug test and receive counseling to receive public assistance under a controversial bill being considered by the Virginia General Assembly.

    Under the proposal, which has been approved by the Senate, people applying for or in the state's job-training program, which is required to receive welfare, would be questioned about substance abuse. Those thought to be abusing drugs could be required to take a drug test.

    If they failed the test or refused to comply, they would be required to attend and complete a drug treatment program to ensure that they continued to receive federal benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. If they failed a second time, they would lose their benefits. A stricter version of the bill, which would have revoked benefits immediately, passed the House initially but was tabled.

    The state asks welfare applicants to allow caseworkers to screen them, but they can decline. The Senate bill would make the initial drug screenings mandatory.

    "It seemed to be a concern of many of the social services personnel in my district," said Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell), the bill's sponsor. "We just thought that there was no place for those who receive public benefits and use them on illegal activities."

    Puckett said the issue is a particular problem for social workers and drug counselors across the rustic stretches of his native southwestern Virginia who have struggled to ease the impact of drug abuse and poverty, exacerbated by the region's struggling economy.

    One of the consistent hurdles aid workers have faced, he said, is the practice of some welfare recipients using cash benefits or Medicaid to buy illegal or prescription drugs to feed their habits.

    But some advocates for the poor say punishing people who are in crisis is the wrong approach; the first response from government should be to offer timely drug counseling, not take away a significant part of a family's income.

    "This is a moment to help, not punish someone who has a problem," said Ty Jones, a staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center in Richmond.

    Jones said that given the state's significant budget shortfall, the added cost to screen people and administer drug tests should be taken into consideration.

    State officials said it would cost about $460,000 a year in administrative expenses to screen all applicants and recipients, although this might be picked up by the federal government. In addition, each drug test costs about $50. As of November, about 13,000 Virginians were receiving TANF benefits; about 9,000 people apply each year, state officials said.

    Limited resources for treatment present another challenge. The state has a waiting list of 800 to 1,000, depending on the type of substance abuse service. The average wait is several weeks. Adding people to the list will tax government programs further, critics say.

    Several states, including Arizona and Kentucky, have moved recently to restrict the benefits of those who test positive for drugs, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington-based think tank. An effort to randomly test all Michigan welfare recipients for drugs was ruled unconstitutional five years ago.

    Puckett said he was not concerned about the constitutionality of his proposal because the state would require only a screening about drug use and not randomly test applicants and recipients.

    He said relatives of anyone removed from the rolls would not lose their benefits. Critics counter that by taking away the parent's benefit, the bill would be removing the family's main source of income.

    Those who support the bill said lawmakers have a responsibility to protect taxpayer money from illicit uses.

    "In these instances, taxpayers are paying for a system for some to traffic or receive narcotics," said Michael Bush, commonwealth's attorney for Russell County. "It's important that we prevent that from happening."

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