Sunday, January 5, 2014

Poor people and drug testing...

Several of my more conservative friends are posting this photo on Facebook and saying "Yes!"…

They are cheering the fact that some states force people who are looking for welfare benefits to be drug tested beforehand.  On the surface, maybe this seems like a reasonable request.  The conservatives get to talk about how they are keeping the druggies from getting their paws on government benefits and "saving kids" from their drug abusing parents.  Except that this week, a judge in Florida just struck down the mandatory drug testing law as unconstitutional.  Judge Mary S. Scriven of the United States District Court in Orlando wrote that “The court finds there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied.”

What?  Say it isn't so!  Poor people have constitutional rights too?

As it turns out, the drug testing wasn't even saving taxpayers any money.  Florida passed the drug testing law in 2011 and in the ensuing years, found that less than 3 percent of people who had been tested actually came up positive for taking illegal drugs.  The vast majority of people desperate enough to present themselves at a government office to apply for welfare benefits were not using drugs.  If you think about it, that makes sense.  Why would someone illegally using narcotics want to attract the attention of government officials, who might then sic the law on them and/or send CPS to their house to take their kids?  Especially since if you're abusing illegal drugs, it would seem you'd have more lucrative opportunities doing something more profitable outside of the law to get the money for your next high.

I have been fortunate enough never to need welfare.  However, because I have worked with poor people as a social worker, I know something about what it takes to get government benefits.  By and large, going on welfare actually involves some hoop jumping.  Yes, there are people who abuse the system and I did run into a couple of people like that when I practiced social work.  But in my experience, the vast majority of people who apply for welfare benefits are not proud to do so.  Being poor is very demoralizing.  Moreover, we have plenty of food in this country and there just isn't any reason why we should deny temporary aid to people who need it.

You really do have to prove that you need welfare benefits before you can access them.  They don't just hand you a check if you show up at the welfare office.  And I don't think that drug tests for poor people looking for welfare benefits is reasonable.  It costs money to buy and administer those tests and the fact is, they aren't actually doing anything but humiliating poor people.  To add insult to injury, the poor folks who were being tested had to pay $30 for the test upfront… and then if they passed, Florida reimbursed them for the tests.  Since over 97 percent of the people who took the drug test passed, that means taxpayers were footing the bill for all this unnecessary drug testing.  But hey, I guess at least the people who made and sold the tests were happy… and so were the folks who got jobs administering the tests and analyzing the results.

Now…  drug testing in the workplace probably makes sense if you're in a job where public safety or trust is a big concern.  For example, I think it makes perfect sense to drug test airline pilots, physicians, cab drivers, cops, and any other job in which someone who is high could hurt a lot of innocent people.  I think it makes sense to drug test someone whose profession puts them at a high level of public trust.  But in a lot of workplaces, drug testing is really just a means of weeding people out of work and invading their privacy.

Check out this article that was posted on the American Civil Liberty Union's blog.  In the post, the author recounts the story of a 35 year old single father and Navy veteran named Luis Lebron.  Lebron was raising his child and trying to take care of his disabled, elderly mother.  Money was tight for the law abiding citizen, so he decided to apply for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).  Mr. Lebron was asked to pee in a cup so the state could make sure he wasn't a druggie.  The amount of money Lebron would have gotten from TANF was just $241 a month.  I haven't priced illegal drugs lately, but it seems to me that $241 wouldn't actually buy that much of the good stuff.  In any case, Lebron decided to sue and was represented by the ACLU, which ultimately ended in victory when a judge ruled that it's unreasonable to force people to undergo drug testing simply because they have the misfortune of being poor.

Not surprisingly, Florida Governor Rick Scott, whose salary is paid by taxpayers and who had championed this law, was reportedly not willing to pee into a cup himself.  And why not?  Because he's not a criminal?  But he gets money from taxpayers, right?  And governors and legislators who shame veterans and other rank and file citizens for not wanting to pee in a cup shouldn't be treated the same way, right?  Bullshit.

Watch how the politicians react when they are asked to provide samples...

What really surprises me is that the folks I see posting the above photo are, more often than not, people who are or were in the military.  Frankly, I think anyone in the military who bitches about government benefits going to American citizens is a colossal hypocrite.  Servicemembers get more government help than anyone.  Granted, they get these benefits for doing the jobs they do and I don't begrudge them for that.  But I do find it curious that people in the military are so often opposed to people being helped by their government.  God knows they don't usually turn down the entitlements they get for being in the military.

Being poor is not a crime.  People who are poor should not be treated like criminals because they dare to ask for help.  What's more, drug testing everyone who asks for welfare benefits is a waste of resources.  I'm glad to see that Judge Mary S. Screvin and her colleagues were wise enough to see this point and strike down an unconstitutional law.


  1. Hi Knotty, I am writing this post is as a requirement as part of a business ethics assignment for a degree, so some of the discussions may seem a little over the top for the blog.

    From reading this blog I see that your discussion revolves the ethics of drug testing individuals.

    One of the biggest arguments around drug testing is that of privacy. So is drug testing a likely breach of our privacy, most people would believe so. The testing for drugs is an invasion of our private lives. What we do within our own homes is our own business. The proviso is that as long as you are not committing an illegal act. Drug testing for whatever reason would appear to be a breach of this privacy.

    For example, in Colorado it has been legal for adults to purchase marijuana since 2012 and they have just introduced legally licenced marijuana shops. So if the drug is legal to purchase, and legal to sell, then how is it possible to carry out a drug test for whatever purpose? The residues from marijuana (THC etc.) can last for several days within a person’s body. So it is possible that they may smoke a joint on Friday night and still test positive on Monday and be no longer under the influence of the drug?

    When a drug test is carried out, a positive result is no indication of the frequency or dependency of the usage. The person may have gone to a party and tried a drug for the first time. A single positive result does not indicate any form of long term use or even abuse of the substance.

    If we look at the utilitarianism approach to ethics, we really need to look at the consequences of their usage. Utilitarianism looks at what is the (Ghillyer, 2010, p. 11) “greatest good for the greatest number of people”. We could say that the majority of people do not use drugs, and (in general) the percentage of drug users that cause a problem is minimal. The users of drugs find that they make them feel better etc. and do not cause any issues at all. With this in mind, then you could say that it is ethical to use drugs because the majority of people are happy. Of course this does not take into account the legality of taking drugs.

    Alternatively you can look at Kantian or Universal theory which states (Ghillyer, 2010, p. 11) ‘Actions are taken out of duty and obligation to a purely moral idea rather than based on the needs of the situation, since the universal principles are seen to apply to everyone, everywhere, all the time’. With this approach you say “It is OK to drug test anyone, at anytime and anywhere” and decide if this is correct or incorrect. If it is correct, then it can become ethical, if it is incorrect, then it is unethical. You have said that this is not correct. In your blog you have said that it is not OK to test beneficiaries as this is discriminating, but it is Ok to test some people according to their role. So there seems to be some measure of discrepancy between this theory and how you have applied it. With a universal theory it must apply equally to everyone.

    To be Continued.....

  2. Part #2

    Testing in the Workplace:
    In a workplace situation there are other questions to be answered. Not just if they are using or has used drugs, but what happens to the information that is gathered during a drug test? Who is responsible for it? Who can you supply it to? Etc. In a workplace situation the information gathered is usually used to decide if the person is “fit for duty” or capable of carrying out their duty safely.
    If someone was tested at work and the results came back positive for illegal drugs, what duties does the company have? Should they just use this information internally or do they have a legal obligation to notify the authorities of this?

    Most organisations carry out some form of pre-employment screening, normally a medical check to see if the person has any issues that would stop them from doing the job correctly. You would not want to hire someone with a long running history of back problems to engage in a job that carries out constant heavy lifting. There does not seem to be any complaints around this form of testing being unethical. Drug testing could be seen as a natural extension of this screening, and as such does the testing suddenly become unethical? I do not think so, there are now valid reasons that employers may want to drug test workers. As an employer they have a legal and ethical obligation to ensure no harm is done to their staff and or their customers.

  3. Part #3

    Testing of Beneficiaries:
    The article mentions that there are no grounds for testing benefit claimants on the basis that they are poor or needy. According to the article that you link to, there is no proof that these people are more or less likely to be taking drugs that any other portion of the population. There is just a general unfounded claim (Williams, 2014)“Governor Scott campaigned hard for this law, making the dubious claim that applicants for public assistance are more likely than the general population to be drug users and therefore that they should be subjected to mandatory and suspicionless searches of their urine. It turned out that so few applicants for public assistance actually tested positive for drugs…..”. This indicates that the testing is not really affective in any way. In reality it is probably alienating more people than it is catching.

    Not only is this an issue in the U.S. but it is also being felt worldwide. For example the N.Z. Prime Minister has been quoted as saying being (3News) “being ‘work ready’ meant being able to take a drug test, if required as part of a job application process, and pass it” and “Choosing to recreationally take drugs and expecting not to be work tested solely for that reason alone is unacceptable,”.

    I would take the stance that blanket drug testing of one group (e.g. beneficiaries) is unethical. There are two reasons I see mainly for this as I have discussed above:
    • Privacy
    • Discriminatory (only applied to certain people or groups)

    However there would seem to be ethical reasons to test within the workplace:
    • To ensure the health and wellbeing of its employees
    • To protect other workers and customers from any risks related to this
    • Reduce their liability.

    This topic will continue to create wide spread discussions in government, corporate and personal and hopefully come up with a suitable solution.

    3news. (2012, August 17). Beneficiaries’ drug tests could cost $14m a year. Retrieved 22 January,
    2013, from
    Desjardins, J., & Duska, R. (2001). Drug Testing in employment. In T. L. Beauchamp & N. E. Bowie (Eds.), Ethical theory and business (6th ed., pp 283-294). Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice Hall.
    Ghillyer, A. W. (2010). Bussiness Ethics, A Real World Approach (2nd Edition). New York: McGraw Hill.
    Williams, J. (2014, January 2). Florida Cannot Drug Test People Simply Because They’re Poor. Retrieved January 6, 2014, from ACLU, American Civil Liberties Unnion:

  4. Hi John. I'm honored that you found my blog post worthy of discussion for your business ethics course, especially since I wrote it as mostly a rant against stuff I read on Facebook. Your discussion is very well-written and logical. I hope it scores well in the classroom.


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