The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 27, 2009

ACLU would fight drug testing for aid recipients

Mannix Porterfield

Expect stiff resistance from the American Civil Liberties Union if and when a proposal for randomly testing recipients of public assistance in West Virginia ever surfaces in a legislative committee.

“Definitely, first and foremost, from a fiscal standpoint, the cost of randomly drug testing all recipients of welfare-based services in West Virginia would be so high that no reasonable legislator would waste taxpayer dollars on it,” the ACLU’s field organizer, Seth DiStefano, said Tuesday.

A day earlier, Delegate Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said he intends to offer such a bill that would subject anyone getting food stamps, a welfare check or unemployment stipend to random drug testing.

Under his proposed “two strikes and you’re out” idea, anyone testing positive would have two months in which to clean up his or her act, or face a cutoff of funds if the second check shows no change.

“Realistically speaking, if you were to institute a random drug-testing program for all of those people, you would find the cost would be substantial and actually counter-productive toward any savings you might get,” DiStefano said.

Moreover, DiStefano said, the measure wouldn’t achieve its intended goal — weaning those on the dole away from substance abuse.

“It’s not going to do anything to remedy the drug problem in the state,” he said.

“Let’s be very clear about that. But what it will do is jeopardize the nutritional needs of economically disadvantaged West Virginia children who rely on welfare services in order to receive hot meals on a daily basis.”

Blair says he thinks it is only fair to expect those getting public assistance to submit to drug testing, just as workers do in the private sector.

“It’s just a common-sense approach to this,” he maintained.

Blair acknowledged such an idea already has been thwarted by a federal appeals court and says he is attempting to write his bill in such a manner it would pass constitutional muster. DiStefano thinks this isn’t possible.

“And speaking just in humanitarian terms, the idea is as offensive as it is unconstitutional,” he said.

”You cannot expect the poorest of West Virginians to pee in a cup in order to get access to basic things like food stamps.”

DiStefano characterized West Virginia as a poor state where many need welfare and food stamps to get by.

Given the strained economy nationally, he said, matters could worsen and even more might be forced to turn to the state.

“As we get into tougher economic times, we as a state and as a society really need to think long and hard as to whether or not we’re going to put punitive measures on access to basic things like food stamps,” the ACLU official said.

“As we get into tougher economic times, odds are more people are going to be relying on stuff like that. As least for a while, until we get through this.”

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