To answer the question of whether or not drug testing is actually necessary, it’s a good idea to look at the existing situation first. If there’s a rampant drug problem, then the demographics of the users must be examined. From there, the data should be compared against other blights against society, and a decision can be made as to whether or not the problem is severe enough to warrant millions of dollars to fix.
In terms of drug use among those on welfare, 3.6 percent would have raised a red flag during a drug abuse or dependence screening. Delving further into the data, 5.7 percent of food stamps recipients have drug use disorders, which is only 1.7 more likely than those not on food stamps. In contrast, about 18 percent of the American population uses tobacco with that number going as high as 21 percent in the Midwest, and 37 percent of households contain a gun (there are 270 to 310 million guns in America).
This isn’t to say that drug use or abuse isn’t a problem and not in need of addressing (even one user is too many), but when compared to other dangers, it pales. If one in seven Americans (45 million) is on food stamps and roughly 5 percent (2.6 million) use illicit drugs, that’s not even 1 percent of the total population. Going back to the previous paragraph, about 1 in 5 Americans smoke, and there are almost enough guns to arm every man, woman and child.
Slate looked at drug testing in Utah and Florida, and how much it cost. In Utah, 12 out of 466 people (2.5 percent) didn’t screen clean and the cost was $25,000; in Florida, 108 out of 4,000 (2.7 percent) screened the same and the cost was $45,780. In both cases, the cost of the drug tests far outweighed the costs of providing benefits to those people. Basic economics says this was not a profitable venture, as the country ended up spending far more money on testing than on fixing the problem.
Besides the actual quantitative cost, there’s a qualitative one, too. Both Utah and Florida essentially spent $70,780 of taxpayers’ dollars to identify people who have used drugs, with not a cent of that going toward actually helping them get off food stamps. Is the price of humiliation really that much? Would these states rather spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars publicly saying they’ve got drug users, or would it be easier to quietly fund programs that help people stop using drugs?
As a last example of just how ineffective drug testing is, let’s look at Arizona, which passed drug testing in 2009. In 2012, the results from the past three years were tallied up, and only one person out of 87,000 screenings was found to have used drugs. The state spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the drug tests, and ended up saving $560. That’s a really, really bad return on investment.
And yet, Republicans still cling to the oft-disproved notion that drug testing for welfare recipients works. It doesn’t. Not only is it a hugely bad financial investment (would you continue pouring thousands of dollars into an index fund if you only got a couple of dollars back?), but it also shoves people to the sidelines.
To paraphrase “keep you friends close but your enemies closer”, the state would do well to fund the few drug users so they could keep close tabs on them. It’s a controversial decision but by doing this, they’re giving them a fighting chance at kicking the habit. If their food stamps are taken away, they’ll now have two problems to deal with: how to buy drugs, and how to buy food.
One is a necessity and the other is an option. Take a guess at which one’s which.
For more information on what individual states are looking at in terms of drug testing for welfare recipients, visit the following sites: