At the end of last year, lawmakers in West Virginia unveiled a bill that would drug test some applicants for the state’s welfare program. Applicants who failed could eventually be barred from receiving benefits, possibly permanently.
In response, state House Delegate Shawn Fluharty has introduced legislation to drug test state lawmakers. Legislators would have to take a drug test before each voting session, and those that failed would be barred from casting a vote or receiving their pay. “I think the public expects us to adhere to the rules that we try to legislate,” he told WTRF. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t do it. It’s not going to cost the taxpayers any more money because we’re going to pay for it ourselves.”
He added, “There’s no reason why state legislators should get a pass, simply because we wear suits.”
West Virginia’s proposed drug testing regime for welfare applicants would require them to be screened for “reasonable suspicion” of drug use, and those who are suspected would undergo the drug test. Those who test negative would have the cost of the test reimbursed by the state and be allowed to enroll, while those who test positive would have the cost of the test deducted from their first benefit payment and be forced to complete a substance abuse treatment paid for by the state, although there is currently a shortage of drug treatment programs. Parents who fail a test would also be referred to child protective services. A second failed test would suspend an applicant from benefits for a year, while a third positive test would lead to a permanent ban.
State lawmakers say the legislation would cost little money while helping curb its drug use problem, which in 2008 meant 7 percent of the population used drugs in a given month. “We don’t want taxpayers’ money being used to support people’s habits,” said Delegate Joe Ellington. “We’re looking at small costs, big yield.”
But while seven other states already have drug testing programs in place for welfare applicants, that’s not what they’ve found. Those states spent nearly $1 million all told as of the beginning of 2015 to administer the tests. With the exception of one state, all uncovered a positive test rate of below 1 percent, and all seven states were well below the national drug use rate of 9.4 percent.
And while many refer those who test positive to drug treatment, that doesn’t mean that they fully fund drug treatment programs so as to make enough room for those who need them. On the other hand, denying low-income people welfare benefits, for any reason, is only likely to drive them deeper into poverty.