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Virginia Rejects Drug Screening Requirement For Welfare Benefits

A proposal to mandate drug screening tests for some Virginia recipients of welfare benefits was recently voted down by 20 to 19 in the state Senate. A similarly proposal passed in the state Senate last year, but was not enacted into law when it did not get approved by the state House of Representatives. One member of the state Senate did not vote on the proposed law this year.

The proposed law would not have required full blown drug tests for every applicant for welfare benefits. Instead, every applicant would have had to undergo an initial screening by a state agency, and, if they appeared to exhibits signs that they could be using drugs, a full blown drug screening test would be ordered.

In those circumstances, those who then will not pass test for drug use would be barred from receiving benefits for twelve months. Children of welfare recipients in this situation, however, would not have been penalized for the drug use of a parent. Those barred from receiving benefits, if they enrolled in and successfully completed a drug rehab program, could get their benefit eligibility reinstated.

A number of Democratic Party members of the legislature advanced arguments that the proposed law would have violated rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. They noted that similar laws enacted in Michigan and Florida had been struck down in the courts. They also argued that the cost of the proposed drug testing would outweigh any savings realized by cutting off benefits to individual drug users.

Another argument against the proposal was that it mistakenly and unfairly assumed that poor people applying for aid benefits were somehow more likely than other people to be involved in illegal drug use. Republican legislators were the proponents of the proposed legislation and stated their belief that it would both save money and prevent state funds from being used to buy illegal drugs.