By Phillip Smith
A bill that would require public benefits recipients to take a drug test upon suspicion they are using drugs passed won final approval in the North Carolina legislature late last week and now heads for the governor's desk. The bill had passed both houses of the legislature earlier this month, but had to win a concurrence vote in the Senate after the House amended it.
Last Thursday, the Senate gave final approval to the bill, passing it 32-4 without debate. That despite concerns raised in the House that it would push drug users away without encouraging them to get help.
The bill, House Bill 392, requires participants in the state's Work First program, which offers cash benefits, training, and support services to families, to submit to drug testing if authorities have a reasonable suspicion they are on drugs. The bill also requires stringent background checks to ensure that recipients are not probation or parole violators or have outstanding felony warrants.
Republican senators amended the bill to make it more palatable by inserting language clarifying that drug test results would remain confidential and that people who tested positive would be referred to treatment resources. They also deleted language that required county employees to tell potential recipients that they wouldn't be drug tested if they didn't apply for Work First.
"We've worked really, really hard to make this bill fair," said bill sponsor Sen. Dean Arp (R) during debate earlier this month. "I hope my colleagues feel we tried to address their concerns."
He didn't convince Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Chapel Hill), the only senator who actually took to the floor to speak against the bill before it passed the first time.
"There is no evidence that people who are getting Work First checks are more likely... to be drug users," she said. "This is just a stigma, and one more kicking people when they are down."
And it is a burden on county social service departments and the taxpayers, Kinnaird said. "It's an added burden time-wise, paperwork-wise," she said. "And it's an unfunded mandate."
Imposing drug testing on public benefits recipients has been an increasingly popular move among Republican-dominated state legislatures in the last few years. States such as Florida that have passed bills to require mandatory, suspicionless drug testing have, however, run into problems with the federal courts, which view drug testing as a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and thus requiring probable cause or a search warrant.
A second generation of public benefits drug testing bills, such as the one passed last week in North Carolina, seeks to get around the constitutional issue by specifying that only beneficiaries who somehow arouse particularized suspicion of drug use are subject to testing. Those laws have yet to be challenged in the federal courts.