Michigan House approves pilot program to give suspicion-based drug tests to welfare recipients


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LANSING, Michigan — Michigan is closer to initiating a one-year pilot program to give drug tests to adult welfare recipients suspected of substance abuse after legislation won approval Wednesday from lawmakers who appear likely to send it to Gov. Rick Snyder for his signature.

The trial would occur in three or more counties under bills passed 74-35 and 75-34 by the Republican-led House, over objections from many Democrats. The GOP-controlled Senate, which approved earlier versions of the legislation, is expected to concur.

If recipients of cash assistance who are thought to be using illegal drugs refuse to be tested, they would lose benefits for at least six months. Recipients who test positive the first time would be offered treatment while still receiving cash aid; repeat offenders would be ineligible for welfare but could reapply if they later test negative.

"People want to make sure that we give a hand up to those in need, but they're tired of giving their tax dollars to people that waste it on drugs," said Rep. Jeff Farrington, a Utica Republican.

His bill would require the state Department of Human Services to monitor welfare applicants and recipients with a substance abuse screening tool. That tool could be a written or oral questionnaire or survey, though legislators couldn't immediately explain specifics. If the agency had a "reasonable suspicion" of illegal drug use, recipients would have to be tested.

Those failing the test would have to cover its cost.

Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright, a Muskegon Democrat, criticized the legislation for not ensuring that children would still get benefits if their parents are kicked off welfare and by saying drug abusers often need multiple attempts to kick their addiction.

"This does not recognize the realities of substance abuse and the very strong hold that ... addictions have on some people," she said. "These bills target and punish the poor for problems that people have on many levels."

Farrington acknowledged that the pilot's cost — recently pegged at $500,000 to $750,000 — may outweigh potential savings from booting drug users from the Family Independence Program and said that's a reason it would be done as a test program.

"Let's try it one year, let's try it in in three counties before we expand," he told reporters.

Michigan has roughly 80,000 welfare recipients, 21,000 of them adults age 18 and older who could be subject to drug testing.

Snyder, a Republican, was noncommittal Wednesday when asked if he supports screening welfare recipients for drug use.

"I'm aware of it. It's been around some time in terms of the discussion, but I'll have to see what the specific legislation says," he said.

Michigan briefly ran a pilot program to drug test welfare recipients in 1999. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and a federal appeals court affirmed a lower court's order halting the program. Part of the legal challenge was based on the claim that constitutional rights were violated because testing was done without "individualized suspicion."

House Bill 4118: http://1.usa.gov/1voGHkX

Senate Bill 275: http://1.usa.gov/1pVwBHo

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