01/29/2013 02:12 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

The Missing Link From Every Jobless Drug Testing Proposal

Every proposal to make unemployed people pee in cups in order to receive benefits, it seems, follows the same pattern: Businesses complain of job applicants flunking drug tests, and then lawmakers react with legislation.

Always absent: data reflecting a drug abuse problem among people receiving unemployment insurance.

Jeremy Hutchinson, a Republican state senator in Arkansas, said he introduced his drug testing bill because he'd heard stories from local business community. The president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce told me he'd heard the stories, too -- but didn't have anything to demonstrate the prevalence of the problem. "I just have a bale of anecdotes," he said.

Same goes for State Rep. Michael Madden of Wyoming, a Republican who also introduced a drug testing bill this year. "I haven't seen any data," he told me.

In Congress, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), heeding complaints from local businesses, pushed drug testing at the end of 2011. The director of a job training nonprofit in Reed's district told me at the time that the hundreds of businesses he'd worked during the previous three-to-five years had seen job applicants fail drug tests at a rate of 10 to 30 percent. He couldn't be more precise, though he considered it a bad enough problem that his organization ran TV ads warning people they could lose out on jobs if they had dirty urine.

Strangely, drug testing advocates never mention the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which consistently finds that people without jobs are more than twice as likely as people with jobs to have used drugs within a month of the survey. Though there is little to suggest the subset of the jobless population receiving benefits uses drugs at the same rate, and some evidence suggests otherwise: West Virginia and Indiana job trainees have tested positive for drugs at a rate of roughly 1 percent.

Last February, Congress gave states leeway to screen unemployment claimants for drugs, something federal regulations haven't allowed (though the prohibition hasn't stopped state lawmakers from pushing bills). The U.S. Labor Department will issue guidelines to states later this year, which will allow them to test claimants only in certain occupations.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees unemployment insurance, told me 2011 that freeing states to try testing would help clear up the picture.

"I think we do need to get more data," Camp said. "That's why I think letting the states make this decision isn't imposing a set of requirements on them. They'll be able to examine their own policies, and it's going to be different in every state."

Camp said he would hold a hearing on the issue last year, but the hearing never happened. The picture is as unclear as ever.

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113th Congress Facts