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Welfare Drug Testing Takes Effect In Tennessee

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WASHINGTON -- Poor people in Tennessee better get ready to forfeit bodily fluids if they want welfare benefits.

A new law taking effect this week allows the state Department of Human Services to screen applicants to the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, known in Tennessee as Families First. The testing regime is not as harsh as the one in Florida famously deemed unconstitutional by federal courts in 2011.

If Families First applicants answer "yes" on a three-question form about potential drug use, they'll be referred for urine testing. If the results are positive, according to the state's implementation plan, the applicants will only be cut off if they fail another test after six months of treatment.

Florida, by contrast, simply made every single applicant pee in cups at the outset, made applicants pay for their own tests and canceled their benefits if they failed. Courts halted the program, saying Republican Gov. Rick Scott's blanket testing violated applicants' constitutional right to privacy. Tennessee and the six other states that have passed welfare drug testing laws since 2011 have tried not to repeat Florida's mistakes.

Still, the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is not happy about the new requirements at all.

"This law singles out limited-income people and requires them to submit to humiliating and intrusive searches of their bodily fluids because they need temporary help making ends meet," Hedy Weinberg, director of the ACLU's Tennessee chapter, said Tuesday.

Weinberg noted that research shows TANF recipients use drugs at a rate no higher than the general population. In Florida, just 2 percent of welfare applicants gave the state dirty urine before the Florida ACLU successfully halted the program with a lawsuit.

Mississippi was also supposed to start drug-screening welfare applicants this week, but civil liberties advocates there persuaded the state to delay implementation. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is also delaying a welfare drug test law that had been scheduled to start this week. Deal is apparently waiting for the legal challenges to Florida's law to be completely resolved.

Even as the war on drugs has lost public and political support, interest in making the poor pass drug tests has surged. Since 2011, dozens of states have considered implementing new drug testing laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and congressional Republicans have pushed new proposals at the national level as well.

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