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Virginia Legislature Latest To Advance Drug Testing The Poor And Unemployed

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Job seekers stand in line to learn more about working at Goodwill Industries at a career fair in San Francisco Jan. 18.
Job seekers stand in line to learn more about working at Goodwill Industries at a career fair in San Francisco Jan. 18.

Virginia Republicans are the latest to advance drug testing for the poor and jobless as a half-dozen bills requiring the needy and unemployed to prove they're not on drugs move through the state legislature.

More than 30 states in the past year have considered legislation to require drug tests for welfare recipients, and several have also targeted unemployment claimants. Virginia State Sen. Richard Black (R), a sponsor of drug testing, told HuffPost he's not surprised by the surge of interest.

"Frankly, I think the use of drugs for some people is the reason they are unemployed," Black said. "I don't believe that taxpayers have an obligation to pay for recreational drug use ... And I think if a person has the money to pay for illicit drugs, then they have the money to support themselves."

Over objections by Virginia House Democrats, the Committee on Health and Welfare Institutions on Tuesday approved one of several bills that would require welfare recipients to be screened in order to qualify for assistance.

The bill would require every person on public assistance in Virginia to be evaluated to determine the likelihood that they are on drugs. Anyone who aroused suspicion in an initial screening would have to submit to a drug test or be thrown off public assistance for one year. The law would allow those with positive results to attend an approved drug treatment program.

Delegate Lionell Spruill, a Democrat on the health and welfare committee, said he strongly opposed the bill. "All the Democrats on the committee voted no, and one Republican voted no with us," Spruill said. "We believe it's wrong, and we believe it's illegal to do so."

Many drug testing opponents have cited a federal judge's injunction halting a similar law in Florida last October. The judge said the law likely violated the Constitution's protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Black said he thinks the Virginia law will hold up to a constitutional test partly because military personnel are already required to submit to random drug testing.

"Everybody had to submit to it, I had to submit to it even as a senior officer," Black said. "If people who defend the nation can be required to submit to drug tests, then certainly people who are asking for the public largess can do as such."

Drug testing bills have not yet been introduced in the Senate, but Black said he'll support them when they do.

The Virginia House Committee on Commerce and Labor is looking at two separate bills that would require people on unemployment to pass a drug test before they could collect their checks. The bills differ on who would be tested and how the bills would be paid for. Currently, no state requires drug testing as a condition of receiving unemployment insurance.

According to Fredricksberg.com, Delegate Margaret Ransone (R) proposed HB 148, a bill that would require everyone on unemployment in the state to pay for and submit a drug test to the Virginia Employment Commission. She said the tests could be seen as a resume builder for the unemployed.

"It's really good to have the character skills," Ransone said. "It's just a good notion to consider that quality in a person that they're not using drugs."

Ransone said it wouldn't cost the state money because the unemployed would pay for their own tests, but the state's tax department released a statement contradicting the delegate.

The department estimates that the new law could cost Virginians upwards of $1 million because of the time and extra staff required to sort through and notify all 402,404 unemployment recipients of their status.

HB 562, proposed by Delegate Daniel Marshall (R), would require the unemployed to be screened for possible drug use and tested only if they are suspected of using. Marshall's bill also differs from Ransone's because Virginia would foot the bill for the tests.

State Sen. Linda Puller (D) said Virginia law already does not allow people who are fired for drug use to collect unemployment. Such is the case in 20 states, according to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.

Puller said, "I don't know that there is any reason to suspect that unemployment recipients use drugs."

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