Staff Editorial: Mandatory drug tests necessary for welfare benefits

Republican state senator George Maziarz of Buffalo introduced a bill on Monday that would require anyone applying for welfare benefits in New York to submit to a drug test. Failure to pass the test would preclude residents from receiving financial assistance from the state.

Most welfare programs already refer recipients to treatment or screening if they are suspected of using drugs, but Maziarz's proposed policy, if given proper systemic support, would address the problem of taxpayer-subsidized illegal activity head-on and direct poor individuals away from behaviors that may obstruct their ability to be productive.

The law is not expected to pass in the assembly, and critics argue that there is little evidence that people who utilize government social programs are more likely to use drugs than those who are employed full-time. In Michigan, a similar policy was ruled unconstitutional on the basis that it involved unreasonable search and seizure; reportedly just over 10 percent of recipients tested positive for drugs in that case.

While we cannot condone illegal drug use by any individual, those who earn money through full-time employment and use those earnings to purchase drugs are not directly subsidized by taxpayer dollars and do not enter into the same social contract as recipients of welfare. A person who seeks state-funded assistance must agree to abide by the laws that allow for the state to function properly in the first place.

In the long run, imposing stricter requirements on welfare recipients could be a budget reliever for our cash-strapped Empire State, but there are social benefits to be realized as well. Maziarz's bill would require people who test positive for drugs to enroll in state-funded treatment. Automatic rehab referrals might have the unintended consequence of inciting some individuals – who could have used the temporary funding to permanently improve their circumstances – to abandon the welfare system altogether. A sliding scale of consequences, however, could be drawn up that would consider the relative harm of different drugs and levels of use. Evidence of the most dangerous drugs could warrant immediate rehabilitation and detoxification while evidence of less harmful substances could result in a short-term suspension of aid.

Illegal drug use needs to be condemned and should not be subsidized by tax dollars no matter how prevalent or rare it is among welfare recipients, but we also need to realize that it is in everyone's interest to provide conditional assistance to those who are economically and circumstantially disadvantaged. By mandating drug tests for welfare recipients, we can use our taxpayer-funded support to intervene and honestly address the problems caused by illegal acts instead of funding and perpetuating those very problems.