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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Drug testing for some food stamp, welfare recipients likely to be challenged in court

State Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia
A controversial bill that would subject some food stamp and welfare benefit recipients to mandatory drug tests has raised a red flag with groups who think the proposed law is unconstitutional.

Last week, state Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, and other GOP state lawmakers signed off on a measure that would give state employees responsible for approving food stamps and welfare benefits the ability to order drug tests if they felt that applicants were stoned, high, or strung out on illegal substances. The legislation currently awaits Gov. Nathan Deal's signature.

Morris' proposal, which resembles a Georgia law passed two years ago only to be ruled unconstitutional, could be contested in court. 11 Alive points out that the legislation is already on the radar of both federal officials and legal advocates:

But on March 7, Robert Caskey, who is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program ("SNAP") in Atlanta, emailed the state with what was essentially a warning - do not pass the bill, it is illegal under federal law:

"The addition of a drug testing provision of any type is prohibited" in the food stamp program, he wrote.

Gerry Weber, Senior Counsel with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said Wednesday that if the governor now signs the bill into law, Georgia may be sued, and could end up in the courts spending, perhaps, millions of dollars, only to lose the case.

"It may endanger the food stamp program here in Georgia," Weber said.

In a recent interview with Georgia Health News, Morris defended his legislation and said it would stop wasteful spending of public money that subsidizes illegal drug habits. He also thinks the measure would hold up against legal challenges. "We can't legislate by speculation,'' Morris told GHN. "We have to do what we believe is right."

Should the proposal become law, the American Civil Liberties Union could file a lawsuit over the drug testing mandate. Chad Brock, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Georgia chapter, says that the legislation is "unconstitutionally broad," especially considering that state employees can order drug tests based on a person's demeanor that potentially suggests "reasonable suspicion." When Morris was asked to define "reasonable suspicion," he told his fellow state lawmakers: "If you roll up to a Zippy Mart® at 3 a.m. with hubcaps missing, wearing sunglasses, and buy three frozen burritos ... there's reasonable suspicion you're high."

Even if the law stands up in court, Slate's Jamelle Bouie argues that the measure would fail to curb drug use among Georgians living on low incomes. Bouie, who looked at other states such as Utah, Florida, and Missouri, all of which have had similar policies, says that those drug-testing programs have only marginally reduced illegal substance use among men and women who receive federal benefits - and largely wasted taxpayer cash. He instead thinks Georgia should adopt a more comprehensive approach that provides additional services to those who failed mandatory drug tests:

Among the purposes of the American social safety net is to prevent destitution and reduce the various harms associated with living in poverty. You don't have to approve of their behavior to see that excluding drug users is counterproductive to that goal. If there's a "right" approach, it isn't to screen drug users out of the system; it's to use drug tests to connect them with other services. In a sense, you want the government to fund someone's drug habit, with strings attached.

For people with positive results, the "strings" could include mandatory drug counseling and treatment. You could also have an aggressive move to reduce the harms of substance abuse. For as much as we want to deter people from using drugs, there's no reason not to work to reduce drug use while minimizing the risk of overdose and infectious disease.

Morris also has another bill that's sitting on the governor's desk: his proposal to construct a Ten Commandments shrine at the Gold Dome. Yes, you best believe that will also be challenged in court if signed into law.

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