The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 26, 2012

GOP to push drug testing of welfare recipients

CHARLESTON — Mitch Carmichael says the reasoning is simple, logical and fraught with compassion.

If folks reporting to work each day can be put to a drug test, why doesn’t the same practice hold sway for anyone picking up a welfare check or food stamps?

Everywhere he stumped this year in a successful quest for a state Senate seat, the House minority whip found huge support for a Republican-led effort to conduct random drug screens for those on the dole.

Now, as a senator, representing Jackson County in the 4th District, he wants to renew an attempt to force random testing.

At least in the Senate, he has one strong ally — Delegate Craig Blair, a Republican who won a seat in the Nov. 6 election. Blair got the idea rolling a few years back, only to see it die in a House committee.

With the Republicans surging in the balloting and now claiming 46 of the 100 seats in the House, Carmichael sees his chances as vastly improved. After all, five conservative Democrats can align themselves with the GOP bloc and force any legislation onto the floor for a vote, he pointed out.

“And the Senate is a much more conservative body,” he said.

Under the tentative bill, anyone on public aid — excluding, at least for now, those getting an unemployment check — could be ordered to undergo a drug screen. Three failures and the aid ceases.

“Obviously, the concern some expressed is, what do you do about the children?” he said of his campaign treks.

“This is not a mechanism to be punitive. It is intended entirely to be compassionate and help people to get off the drugs and empower them to stay clean and to provide for their families in the proper manner.”

Carmichael acknowledged that some previous backers of such legislation took a hard-line approach to singularly punish the wrong-doers.

“I want to make sure people throughout the state know that is not the intention,” he said.

“It is a compassionate mechanism to break the dependence. The worst thing you can do is leave a child in a drug-infested home. So with this legislation, there are three opportunities to test clean.”

Testing positive the first time allows the recipient to voluntarily seek help. Failing to come clean a second time results in mandatory counseling and this can be achieved in the private sector, even in volunteer settings, such as faith-based groups.

Failing a third time brings the hammer down. Three strikes and you’re out. No more welfare, period.

Is random testing fair, considering that one recipient may be clean as a houndstooth and go through a drug screen, while an habitual abuser never is examined?

“If you happen to be the one that’s completely clean, and you’re being tested and someone’s not, that individual might view it as unfair,” the senator-elect said.

“From a statistical standpoint, it’s completely fair.”

Momentum appears to be shifting in favor of those seeking such testing.

Twenty-eight states are proposing some variation of a testing law. Laws are already on the books in some jurisdictions.

Utah enacted legislation to compel a written questionnaire screening for drug use, while Georgia and Oklahoma passed bills requiring drug tests for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. All recipients must be tested in Tennessee.

“Everywhere I went during the campaign, people were in support of it,” Carmichael said.

“There’s just an overwhelming sense that we’re empowering people to stay home and abuse drugs. There’s a sense of fairness to say, ‘If we have to take a drug test to go to work, then why not take one to stay home?’ That was the biggest applause line. There was overwhelming support for it. I believe if it were put on the ballot, it would pass 75-25.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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