PolitiFact Florida | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

Florida is not the first state to require drug testing of welfare applicants

A chain e-mail making the rounds praises Gov. Rick Scott for making Florida the first state to require needy Floridians to pass a drug test before they can receive cash welfare assistance.

"I-95 will be jammed for the next month or so. ... Druggies and deadbeats heading North out of Florida. ..." the e-mail says.

"Florida is the first state requiring drug testing to receive welfare!"

But is Florida really the first?

PolitiFact Florida asked some experts, but not before doing a quick Internet search to see whether we might find some of the message's genesis. At least three sentences of the e-mail appear to be lifted from a June New York Daily News article. But that article doesn't address the claim we're checking, that Florida "is the first state requiring drug testing to receive welfare."

For that, we turned to the Florida Senate's final analysis, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Florida's law deals with part of what used to be known as welfare: It's a cash assistance program funded by federal block grants called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Back in 1996, as part of federal welfare reform, the government told states they could use drug testing as part of eligibility for the block grant programs.

Florida's law requires applicants for cash aid to pay for their own drug tests. If they pass, the cost of the testing is added to their benefits. If they fail, they're disqualified from cash aid for a year, though with drug abuse treatment they can reapply in six months. The caseload is down 11 percent from September 2010.

Was Florida the first to try such testing?

The answer is no. Michigan instituted mandatory drug tests for all welfare applicants — in 1999.

But that kind of "suspicionless" testing, without any reason to believe people were using drugs in the first place, was struck down in 2003 by a Michigan appeals court. That discouraged other states. So while many have considered more drug testing since the 1990s, very few have passed laws, according to NCSL, a bipartisan group that represents state lawmakers.

A 2002 survey, for example, showed that a handful of states — such as Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Wisconsin — tested only people who have been convicted of a drug felony.

Still, the proposals, sometimes pitched as a cost-saving measure, are popular. In 2009, more than 20 states proposed requiring drug tests as a condition of eligibility for public assistance, according to NCSL.

In 2010, at least 12 did. No laws emerged. But this year, with at least 36 states considering drug-testing proposals, three are now law. In addition to Florida's mandatory suspicionless testing, Arizona and Missouri screen applicants they have reasonable cause to believe are taking illegal drugs, though Arizona's requirement is temporary.

Meanwhile, Florida's law — the first requiring testing regardless of suspicion since Michigan's program was struck down — is under legal challenge. The ACLU has sued Florida to stop what it considers "unreasonable and suspicionless searches" that violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Our ruling

In 1996, Congress said states could test welfare recipients for illegal drug use, and in 1999, Michigan was the first state to require applicants to take drug tests, regardless of suspicion.

But that law was struck down as unconstitutional, discouraging other states from requiring similar testing.

This year, Florida became the first state to try mandatory drug screening of all applicants after Michigan's legal loss, while Arizona and Missouri enacted laws to test applicants they suspect might use drugs.

A chain e-mail claims, "Florida is the first state requiring drug testing to receive welfare!" It is the first one — since the last one, which was Michigan. Meanwhile, other states require drug testing for some applicants. We rule this e-mail's claim False.

Florida is not the first state to require drug testing of welfare applicants 10/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 10, 2011 11:15pm]

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