Friday, January 14, 2011

Mandatory Drug Testing For Welfare Benefits?

Should government agencies compel drug tests as a condition of recieving public assistance?

This subject came up as a result of a discussion started by a Twitter pal. I don't intend to get into the merits of the concept here, as that has been thoroughly discussed in other venues; however, it's important to understand the logistics of any proposal such as this.

First, it must be understood that urinalysis can be "beaten"- in other words, a drug user can avoid detection- if the user knows in advance that a test will be administered. This is how many drug users obtain employment in the first place.

There are two ways to prevent "cheating"- either testing frequently enough that a user must remain "clean", or testing randomly and without prior warning. Prior warning would defeat the purpose of random testing.

Now, let's consider the ways these types of effective testing could be implemented-

1) Frequent testing: The most successful way to ensure compliance with a no-drug policy would be frequent testing- i.e. weekly. There isn't sufficient interval between weekly tests to use most recreational drugs and then detox again.

The problem with this proposal, is the sheer volume of people on public assistance. Let's say, for example, a state has 250,000 people recieving public assistance. How would you schedule for 250,000 people to appear and pee into a cup each and every week? The answer is, a very large, and very expensive, bureaucracy with numerous testing centers, separate laboratories (to ensure impartiality in test results), and thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of employees. I don't care to calculate the cost of such an endeavor, but I already pay enough toward welfare recipients and don't care to pay more.

2) Random testing: The risk of being randomly tested can be an effective deterrent to drug use, provided two things occur: a) everyone recieving benefits does eventually get tested, and b) there is no warning before the test. In order to accomplish surprise testing, it wouldn't be possible to send notification of an appointment by mail or phone, as that would give sufficient advance warning to detox. The only way to accomplish this would be, literally, surprising people at home. This means another new bureaucracy, with authority to visit people at home and demand a urine sample. This would probably be just as expensive as the above concept, and would also grant government more invasive authority.

Less expensive alternative would be extremely inefficient. Mailing or phoning notices to appear would give too much lead time to detox and beat the test; random testing at a welfare office (in conjunction with picking up a check, for example) would clog the office with recipients on the first day of the month (which is why checks are usually mailed and not picked up in the first place); and utilizing existing drug testing facilities would be almost as expensive as establishing state-run facilities.

Whether you believe this is a good idea in theory or not, we must recognize that such testing would either be outrageously expensive, or ridiculously inefficient. In other words, it'd be just like most other government programs.

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