SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is beginning a divisive policy of drug testing welfare applicants, but its measured approach underscores how carefully states are navigating the issue amid legal challenges that have blocked proposals elsewhere.
Other states have proposed drug testing every applicant, but in Utah, only those shown through a questionnaire to have a "reasonable likelihood" that they’re using drugs will need to take a drug test.
And unlike in other states, applicants in Utah who fail the drug test can continue receiving benefits while seeking treatment. Utah’s proposal took effect Wednesday. The measure offers a possible blueprint for dozens of states that have debated proposals to deny benefits to welfare applicants who test positive for drugs — an idea that has become more appealing as states look for savings in tough budget years.
Opponents of such proposals say they unfairly stigmatize the poor and make unproven conclusions that they’re more likely to use drugs than the general population.
States that have passed blanket welfare drug-testing laws faced legal challenges amid constitutional concerns that the plans amounted to unreasonable searches for people simply looking for help. In 1999, a drug-testing program in Michigan was halted after five weeks and eventually ended with an appeals court ruling it was unconstitutional. Florida passed a welfare drug-testing program in 2011, but it’s on hold after a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing the case.
"We are challenging these laws for constitutional issues, but we are very concerned about the trend around the country toward scapegoating poor people for the economic mess we find ourselves in," said Jason Williamson, an attorney with the ACLU.
The ACLU has not challenged Utah’s law, but is monitoring it and it’s still a possibility, Williamson said.
At least 28 states considered laws to drug test welfare applicants this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2011, at least three dozen considered such laws, according to the NCSL. But only a handful has passed during both years, including in Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
Some states have included screening processes to determine reasonable cause for drug tests, said Rochelle Finzel, the Children and Families Program manager at the NCSL.
Georgia’s law was scheduled to take effect last month, but officials there are waiting for the results of the Florida case.
"We took a different approach than a few of the other states," said Utah Republican Rep. Brad Wilson, who sponsored the state’s welfare drug testing law.
He said the point is to help people on welfare get back to work and remove any obstacles, such as drug abuse. He said the legislation is also necessary given the state’s limited finances.
"It’s better for the people on the program and it’s also better for the taxpayer," he said.
Wilson said he doesn’t believe that people on welfare are more likely to use drugs and dismissed the criticism that testing welfare recipients plays on unfair stereotypes.
"I realize that people may say that, but it’s just plain not true," he said.
Under the new Utah law, all welfare applicants will take an online questionnaire, under the supervision of a social worker, but only about 5 to 10 percent will be flagged for a drug test, Wilson said. The costs of the tests are estimated to be about $20,000 annually, Wilson said. The tests and treatment will be paid for with funds from the welfare program, known as the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Other states proposed having the applicants pay for the tests.
Curt Stewart, a Utah Department of Workforce Services spokesman, said he couldn’t talk about what types of questions will be asked because it would tip off applicants.
States that have struggled to pass similar laws recently may be watching closely what happens with Utah’s program.
"If Utah’s works well, and they don’t run into some of the constitutional challenges, then it could be something that other states look to as an example," Finzel said.