Orrin Hatch: Drug Test The Unemployed

06/22/2010 12:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ryan Grim Washington Bureau Chief, The Huffington Post

Utah voters have reacted enthusiastically to Sen. Orrin Hatch's legislation to drug test the unemployed and those receiving other forms of government cash assistance, the Utah Republican told the Huffington Post after introducing his measure last week.

"A lot of people are saying, 'Hey, it's about time. Why do we keep giving money to people who are going to go use it on drugs instead of their families?'" Hatch said.

The goal, he said, is to get users into treatment.

"Now, it doesn't do away with food stamps. And it does get the help for them that they really need. And if they get the help, then they're right back on to the cash," he said.

He said he has gotten little feedback from his colleagues, however. Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) all told HuffPost they don't have an opinion yet on Hatch's measure and will have to study the language.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), meanwhile, has an opinion. "I think it's a punitive attitude. Who's going to pay for the test? What's the point of the test? You know, why do you want to drug test people who have lost their job?" she wondered.

Hatch said the test would be paid for with money saved by not paying benefits. "Any monies left over would go to help the states with the drug testing and so forth, and if there's any surplus it goes to pay off the deficit," he said.

The idea of drug testing those on public assistance is not a new one, though policymakers have generally dismissed it as ineffectual.

Harold Pollack, the Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, has studied the issue closely. He notes that the 1996 welfare reform already grants states broad discretion to drug test recipients, though Hatch's measure would expand that to the unemployed. "Absent specific indications, my own research and work conducted by others suggests that population drug screening is unwise. The likely consequence is to stretch states' already overburdened screening, assessment, and referral systems with large numbers of casual marijuana users," he said. "In part, this pattern reflects a technological quirk: Urine tests more readily detect marijuana than they can detect other intoxicating substances. In part this pattern reflects the basic epidemiology of illicit drug use."

A project in Michigan demonstrated that reality. "A decade ago, Michigan implemented mandatory testing in three welfare offices. Out of 258 new and continuing applicants tested, 21 tested positive for illicit substances. All but three of these women tested positive for marijuana only. In light of such experiences, few states have chosen to pursue similar efforts," said Pollack.

Medical marijuana, meanwhile, is legal at the state level for nearly half the American population. Drug testing could punish patients who are legally following state law and their doctors' recommendations.

Hatch, asked if he thought his legislation should apply to members of Congress, wasn't sure at first. "Well, if they're getting cash assistance. No member of Congress that I know of gets welfare," said Hatch, though that depends on one's definition of welfare. Hatch, however, said he has no objection to adding members of Congress to the program. "I don't see why members of Congress should be exempt from anything, to be honest with you. We ought to have to live with the laws everybody else has to live with," he said.

He stressed that he isn't looking to punish, but to help. "We're not trying to hurt anybody. What we want to do is get it so that federal dollars aren't going for drugs," he said.

Mikulski isn't buying it. "I think it's punitive and petty," she said.