Should We Drug Test Welfare Recipients?
By Ryan Young
Should we drug test welfare recipients? It is a hot question that evokes an emotional response in many people. Anyone who has a Facebook account has seen one of those memes where somewhere that has decided to drug test welfare recipients and that we should do it here. Yes, we probably all know someone who fits the bill. Too lazy to work. Sitting home all day and getting drunk and high on the taxpayer dime. I won’t deny that this does happen and I certainly understand the emotional reaction people get when they think of people “living it up” on their hard earned tax dollars. But is that really the case? Does it happen as often as we think? What are the causes? And what happens to the most vulnerable users when the plug is pulled and the safety net is gone?
Addiction is no simple issue and certainly there are no simple answers. We are only beginning to scratch the surface on the root causes. For half a century we have been hell bent on treating drug use as a criminal and moral issue instead of a public health issue. Even the most conservative estimates show that the United States has poured over a trillion dollars into its war on drugs, with the net result being that drugs are more prevalent now than when Nixon first declared war on recreational drug use nearly fifty years ago. History has shown that increasing prison terms for drug users only drives the trade even further underground and the availability of drugs on the black market makes it easier for youth to get access to them. Furthermore, people who have developed a problem are often afraid to seek help lest they end up in jail.
So what happens when we pull the plug? Firstly we will see a wave of addicts clogging up medical facilities when they are unable to procure their drugs. Addiction IS a disease and people WILL get sick when they are forced to go cold turkey. Without support, many will soon become homeless and in many cases will turn to crime to feed their addictions. Those who get caught will end up in prison, but at what cost to society? The cost per month to house a prisoner can be from five to ten times higher than the cost of sustaining them through social welfare programs, and in many cases the drugs are even more accessible in prison than they are on the streets. In turn we also will need more police resources to combat the rise in crime, which will cost the government even more money, not to mention the cost of the tests themselves which are certainly not cheap. So where does that leave us? What is the point? What are the real costs to society from such a “cost saving” measure?
In 2014 Tennessee introduced drug testing for welfare recipients on a large scale. Out of nearly thirty thousand applicants only 55 tested positive. That works out to about 0.19%, far below the national drug use average of 9.4%. With an average cost of two hundred dollars per test, the program turned out to be a big waste of taxpayer money and is now under review. A total of 7 states have introduced similar programs at a total cost of over a million dollars. Not surprisingly, the results are very similar across the board. In every case the number of positive tests was far below the national average for drug use. The evidence seems to suggest that the popular conservative myth of the rabid drug users living large on the taxpayer dime just doesn’t appear to have any factual merit. In Florida, their testing program was ruled unconstitutional and discontinued, proving that there are strong moral as well as financial arguments against these drug testing programs.
At the other end of the spectrum, Portugal decided to decriminalize all drugs in 2001. Despite the popular american drug myths, the country was not run into the ground by drug fueled hooligans. In fact, things got dramatically better. The lifetime prevalence of drug use dropped dramatically, as did the number of drug related deaths. This wasn’t just because of decriminalization but due to the fact that Portugal coupled their new drug law policies with new health policies that recognize addiction as a public health issue, and they began to treat it accordingly. They shifted drug control from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Health and instead of building new prisons they invested in rehabilitation centers and health clinics. They introduced a guaranteed minimum income program to expand the social welfare program which helped to lift many people out of poverty and beyond the siren song of addictive drugs. Major changes in policy, and even more importantly, the resources available over the past fifteen years, are a major factor in Portugal’s positive results with their drug policy.
Just this week Ireland has made “a radical cultural shift” in its drug policy. Small amounts of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin will be decriminalized and safe injection sites will be set up for intravenous users. Moving from shaming addicts to providing them with a support network will be the basis of the new policy shift. Some dispute the opening of injection sites on the grounds that it promotes drug use, but the minister responsible stated that by opening safe injection sites they would aim to prevent vulnerable individuals from exposing themselves to further risk. This is indeed a radical shift in thinking from the traditional anti-drug establishment. While the program has many opponents, many more are praising it as a long awaited step towards lowering HIV/AIDS rates and breaking the cycle of drug and alcohol addiction in Ireland.
So what lessons can we learn from places like Tennessee, Portugal, and Ireland? Abandoning our most vulnerable citizens is not only morally questionable, but it doesn’t seem to make smart financial sense either. Many welfare recipients claim that the cost of recreational drugs are out of their reach, even if they wanted to do them, and the low numbers of positive results back up those claims. We have also learned that when it comes to reducing drug use among the poor, the best path is by empowering people caught in the system to take control of their own lives. Creating programs that address the root causes of addiction and treating people like human beings has been proven to do much more for drug users than any prison term ever could.
So what can we do here at home to combat our increasing addiction problems and all of the bad elements that go along with it? As tragic as the recent shooting death of Mr. Wellman was, it is a sad indicator of the way things are going under the current system. Our approach to drug use and addiction is simply not working. If we want to seriously address the issue and make progress we need to look past the status quo and find new ideas to tackle this problem. It is time to heed the lessons of those who have gone before us and start to rethink our approach to drug use and addiction in this province. Only by changing our attitudes will we ever make headway and see real positive change.