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Maryland Considering Drug Testing Welfare Applicants


January 1997

On December 3, a Maryland House-Senate panel endorsed a plan to require drug tests for all welfare applicants (Jon Jeter, "Md. May Tie Drug Testing, Welfare Cash," Washington Post, December 4, 1996, p. A1; Md. welfare drug-testing plan a model for others," USA Today, December 11, 1996, p. 15A).

If the Maryland General Assembly approves the plan, all cash benefits would be denied to applicants for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (renamed the "Temporary Cash Assistance" program in Maryland) who refuse the drug test. Applicants who test positive would have to complete a state-paid treatment program to receive full benefits. For a parent who fails the test, for example, the monthly $373 grant for a typical family of four would be reduced by $81. The remaining benefits would be given to a responsible third party to insure that it is not used to finance the parent's drug habit. The General Assembly, which appointed the panel to spearhead welfare changes, is expected to consider the proposal during the 1997 legislative session.

The proposal has bipartisan support. "The benefit of this is that the mother will get treatment, which they do not always get now, and the state would be certain that the money is reaching the children and we're not subsidizing someone's addiction problem," said state Senator Martin G. Madden (R-Howard County), co-chairman of the legislative panel. Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) said the plan is fair because the drug test is not punitive and families will not be sanctioned if treatment is not available.

Donna Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening (D), said potentially the plan costs "quite a bit of money." At an estimated $18 for each drug screening, it could cost $1.2 million to test more than 60,000 welfare applicants a year. In addition, treatment costs per person range from $1,422 for the average six-month outpatient program to $22,772 for an intensive 30-day residential program. Supporters claim that taxpayers will save money in the end by saving on the costs of treating HIV infections, caring for drug addicted babies, and incarcerating drug offenders (Jon Jeter, "Drug Testing Plan Could Balloon Md. Welfare Costs," Washington Post, December 5, 1996, p. E1).

"We don't drug test every parent when their children show up for the first day of school, so why are singling out these parents?" said Steven Savner, a senior lawyer with the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy. Savner said drug testing is a search and seizure issue under the Fourth Amendment, and Maryland's policy is likely to face a court challenge on that issue.

Susan Goering, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland, says Maryland is already turning away people who want to receive drug treatment, and that drug testing welfare recipients will just add to the list of people who will be turned away. Goering said Maryland's tax dollars would be better spent on treating drug users who want treatment (Susan Goering, "Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Would Be Useless, Costly and Unconstitutional," ACLU of Maryland Press Release, December 9, 1996).

Peter Reuter, PhD, a professor in the School of Public Affairs and in the Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland, agrees that drug testing welfare applicants would overwhelm publicly-funded treatment programs. Reuter argues that the proposal is flawed because a welfare applicant would know that he or she is going to be tested. The test would disproportionately detect "marijuana smokers (since marijuana can be detected for 30 days compared to about four days for hroin or cocaine); the stupid (who didn't realize they would get caught); and the dependent (who truly couldn't stop)," says Reuter. He added, "Many welfare applicants need assistance because of bad luck -- a divorce, death of a husband or sudden lose of job," and making such people the object of suspicion is demeaning (Peter Reuter, "A Reform That Should Be Rejected," Washington Post, December 29, 1996, p. C1).