By Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
Frank Knaack headshotIf at first you don’t succeed, adjust your tactics – this seems to be the mantra for some legislators who think we should drug test public benefits recipients.  Well, to be accurate, it’s actually only one group of public benefits recipients who these lawmakers want to test.
At first, supporters sought legislation that mandated suspicionless drug testing for all TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients.  That’s right, instead of the government having to prove your guilt, you had to prove your innocence – a proposition completely at odds with American values.  After the mandatory, suspicionless drug testing debacle in Florida (it was found unconstitutional by a federal court), Virginia’s mandatory testing proponents revised their strategy.  We now have a bill that requires local social service departments to screen every Virginian participating in the VIEW program to determine whether probable cause exists to believe he or she is engaged in the use of illegal drugs.  If the screening indicates reasonable cause then the participant must submit to a drug test or be denied TANF funds for one year.  This is completely outrageous!  Here are just a few of the problems with this proposal (HB 234):
  • It is legislation in search of a problem.  The legislation implies that there is a correlation between poverty and drug use.  No such correlation exists.  Florida’s unconstitutional experiment highlights the problems with basing public policy decisions on unfounded stereotypes about those living in poverty.  While the federal government estimated that 8.13 percent of all Floridians (age 12 and up) used illegal drugs, only 2.6 percent of TANF applicants tested positive for illegal drugs.
  • We don’t ask any other group to sacrifice their Fourth Amendment rights to receive government benefits.  Many Virginians receive government assistance in one form or another, yet we don’t treat any other group as suspected drug users and force them to prove their innocence.  This legislation unfairly singles out one group to sacrifice their basic privacy rights.
  • The legislation relies on a flawed screening process.   The bill’s fiscal impact statement is based on the use the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory  (SASSI) to screen Virginians.  SASSI claims a 94% accuracy rate, which means more than one in 17 screened Virginians could be falsely flagged and forced to choose between their privacy and putting food on the table.  But, even that error rate seems terrific when compared to the preliminary data from Utah’s recent use of SASSI.  Based on the preliminary data set of raw numbers, 1020 people scored a high probability of being a drug user.   Of that number, 712 applicants were required to take the test.  Between 434 and 454 tested negative, 266 did not take the test, and only 12 tested positive.  And, for the 266 who did not take the test, the state believes that most chose not to take the test for legitimate reasons.  That is a far cry from 94%.
This legislation is a discriminatory and unnecessary use of taxpayer resources.  We urge the legislature to reject this bill (and those that come after it).
Want to stay informed about our work to ensure the privacy of all Virginians?  Continue to follow our blog, and check out our Facebook and Twitter for breaking news!  And, sign up to be a grassroots advocate.

Stay informed

ACLU of Virginia is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National