In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 250 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: taking a look at suspicionless drug testing requirements for the receipt of governmental benefits. This is The Two Minute Drill for Friday, March 21, 2014.
Last week, the Mississippi State Senate passed a bill that would require screening of all new welfare applicants using a questionnaire designed to gauge the likelihood that they use drugs. Republican Governor Phil Bryant is expected to sign it. The Mississippi bill is part of a trend among Republican governors and legislators showing a renewed interest in conditioning the receipt of certain governmental benefits on passing drug tests. For decades, federal policymakers and state administrators of governmental assistance programs – e.g. the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants – have expressed concern about the “moral character” and worthiness of beneficiaries. But is this practice constitutional? And even if it is, is drug testing recipients of governmental benefits warranted by the facts?
The Explanation (250 or Bust)
The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people” to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the government. The Supreme Court has held, on a number of occasions, that government-administered drug tests are searches under the Fourth Amendment. For such tests to be considered reasonable, they generally must be based on individualized suspicion, unless the government can show a special need warranting a deviation from the norm. Governmental benefit programs (like TANF) have typically been considered to evoke the special needs exception the Supreme Court has recognized in the past. Therefore, legislation that only requires individuals to submit to a drug test based on an individualized suspicion of drug use are less likely to run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.
However, drug testing government beneficiaries is a solution in search of a problem.
In 2011, Florida became the first state to pass and fully implement a bill mandating suspicionless drug testing for all applicants for TANF. The law was in effect for a mere four months before a federal court intervened. But even over those four months, it was apparent the law was a complete failure. The number of individuals testing positive was low (108 of 4,086 applicants); the law didn’t deter individuals from applying for help; and it cost taxpayers more than it saved. This story repeats itself in other states implementing these tests.
In reality, these bills have less to do with concern over drugs than with stigmatizing the poor as unworthy of government assistance.
Word Count: 250
The Five Most Interesting Things We’ve Read This Week
Here are the five most interesting articles (both political and non-political) we’ve read this week:
- “[W]ar is stressful; you forget to floss. ‘When a soldier goes into the battlefield, he does not have a dentist, or a dental office,’ Colonel Robert Hale, Commander of the Army’s Dental and Trauma Research Detachment, told me last week. Enter the Army Institute of Surgical Research, which has spent about seven years and as much as twelve million dollars on a project to alleviate dental neglect. They’re calling it combat gum.” From The New Yorker: Zero Dark Cavity.
- “After several days of sleep patterns similar to those followed by night workers – three days of night shifts with only four to five hours sleep in 24 hours – the mice lost 25% of the brain cells, in part of the brain stem. The researchers say this is the first evidence that sleep loss can lead to a loss of brain cells.” From the BBC: Lost Sleep Leads to Loss of Brain Cells, Study Suggests.
- “One-third of people think that the Food and Drug Administration is deliberately keeping natural cures for cancer off the market because of pressure from drug-companies . . . Twenty percent of people said that cellphones cause cancer — and that large corporations are keeping health officials from doing anything about it. And another 20 percent think doctors and the government want to vaccinate children despite knowing that vaccines cause autism. From NPR: Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories.
- “Before that, [Michael] used to hang out with nomadic cow-herding kids, children who sell bottled water by the roadside, and budding scam artists. Yes, Nigerian scam artists, like the ones who send you emails purporting to be from an African prince who will pay you to help him move $3 million into your country, and all you have to do is give him your bank account number. I told Michael I wanted to interview his scammer friends. He said there was no way that his dudes would pay for less than $600. Shocker . . . So I offered $100 for a rare glimpse at the human faces behind the syntax-challenged spam. We settled on $130, and off we went.” From Mother Jones: What I Learned Hanging Out With Nigerian Email Scammers.
- “Poverty is a thief. Poverty not only diminishes a person’s life chances, it steals years from one’s life.” From the New York Times: Income Gap, Meet Longevity Gap.
And in case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. This past week took a look at the crisis in Crimea and the right to secede under international law. Read the Column – The Right to Secede under International Law: The Case of Crimea.