The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 22, 2013

Freshman senators to push new bill for benefits drug testing

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — In the spirit of “compassionate conservatives,” two freshman senators are pushing a new version of a bill they once pursued in the House to impose random drug tests on West Virginians getting public relief.

In one major change, the former “three strikes and you’re out” clause has been abandoned.

Under the 2013 model, anyone testing positive a second time loses benefits until finally coming clean.

Bowing to public comments, Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, says the legislation he is advocating with Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, would also subject members of the Legislature to random testing.

“We want you to lead by example” is a refrain Carmichael often heard from state residents.

Based on responses to newspapers and the social network Facebook, he says public support for the legislation ranges between 80 and 90 percent.

“Anyone receiving public assistance should not be using that money to feed their drug addiction,” Carmichael said Thursday.

“Absolutely, that’s true.”

The Carmichael-Blair bill covers anyone getting a welfare check, food stamps or unemployment compensation.

“We take this from a compassionate perspective to say if children are in a home in which parents are addicted to drugs, the money’s not really going to the children’s benefit, anyway,” Carmichael said.

“We want to help direct these people to counseling, either to faith-based counseling, or some other type of counseling, to break this addiction.”

Nationally, the trend appears to be on his side. At last count, 23 states have either enacted some version of welfare drug testing or are contemplating doing so.

Constituents have suggested they also incorporate a clause to apply the same drug testing to anyone applying for a driver’s license. In the House, Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, has sponsored legislation to force teenagers to pass a drug screen before getting a license.

Carmichael’s bill would direct a drug abuser to counseling approved by the state health commissioner but there would be no stoppage of benefits at this juncture.

After 30 days, if a second test is again positive, the flow of taxpayer dollars directly to the recipient grinds to a halt and the money instead goes to a spouse or children.

One year later, a drug abuser can reapply for benefits but must prove in a follow-up test that the blood is drug-free.

Critics of past legislation have bemoaned the cost, citing large numbers, but Carmichael says they simply are “just unaware of the facts.”

A kit capable of revealing seven known substances runs about $3, he said.

“Our chances this year are way better,” Carmichael said of his first year in the Senate.

“We’re very encouraged. I see where the house speaker (Rick Thompson, D-Wayne) has indicated this is something the House wants to do. Everyone is affected by drug use in West Virginia. This is a national problem. We think we have a way of addressing it with this bill in a compassionate manner. I think it stands a real good chance.”