01/23/2013 06:13 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

It Makes No Sense to Drug Test People Who Apply for Government Financial Assistance

Lawmakers across the country are pushing bills to drug test people who apply for certain benefits, like unemployment insurance and welfare. This makes NO sense.

People who apply for unemployment insurance need to have worked within a certain amount of time from when they're applying, and while they were working they were paying into that system for if/when they were fired. Why should they submit to a drug test to receive benefits from a system which they were contributing to?

States that have drug-tested welfare applicants found that such a small percentage of the population failed the drug tests that it wound up costing the state much more money because they had to reimburse all the people who did not fail the test. Look at the case in Florida where, not only was the law deemed unconstitutional, it was totally unsuccessful and despite claims that large amounts of people decided not to apply for benefits fearing they'd fail the drug test, in reality "the testing program didn't deter individuals from applying for help," according to the ACLU.

Let's also look at how drug tests actually work. They're basically designed to catch only people who use marijuana. Drugs like cocaine and heroin are out of your system in 2-3 days and someone who uses these drugs can abstain for a short period of time before their drug test and still pass the test. However, marijuana can stay in someone's system for up to a couple months. You can share a joint with some friends and still come up positive for marijuana on a drug test weeks later. So not only can these tests fail to measure impairment at the time of the test, they are completely unreliable in determining if someone has a problematic relationship with drugs.

Besides all that, applying for these benefits means you are in a tough situation already and it is extremely humiliating to pee in a cup in front of complete strangers. None of the banking executives were drug tested before receiving billions of dollars in bail-out money. Nobody is drug tested when they apply for Medicare, Social Security and other common benefits that cross different levels of socio-economic status. Any student attending a state university is getting a subsidy from the government -- should people be drug tested in order to go to college? There are all sorts of benefits people can get without having to be drug tested, but it seems that these lawmakers are set on attacking the most poor and vulnerable groups.

These policies being proposed fail to get to the root of the problem -- administering a drug test does not change the fact that you're still unemployed and it is futile if treatment on demand is not an option for the applicant. In an effort to be fiscally conservative, these lawmakers are simply putting a band-aid on a broken leg, only that band-aid is stigmatizing, unfair, unconstitutional, and most importantly, making matters worse.

Derek Rosenfeld is internet communications associate for the Drug Policy Alliance.

This piece first appeared on the DPA Blog: