Who shouldn’t we test for drugs?

Recently Governor Rick Perry and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst announced their support for drug testing for people who receive government assistance for the poor. Under the proposed law, applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TAFN) in Texas would be required to pass a drug test.

One of the motives behind this legislation is efficiency. Texans don’t want to see their tax dollars going to pay for illegal drugs. However, based on Florida’s experience with a similar program Texas would likely spending more to administer than it would save in denied benefits. As the Miami Herald reported, only 108 of the 4,086 (2.6%) people who took the test failed.  Florida came out at least $45,780 behind because drug testing there averaged $35 per test. That doesn’t include other costs of the program and the court costs required to defend the law in courts.

The response of some Florida legislators and their allies in Texas is that this is really about stopping illegal drugs. As David Dewhurst commented, “It is a legitimate function of government to help people who are not able to help themselves.” Of course, if this is really the motive of the law it need not be limited to TAFN recipients. Further,if we’re really interested in helping those Texans not able to make their own decisions we should expand testing to include alcohol and prescription drug abuse.   Finally, it’s ironic that Texas would be cracking down on all drug use just as other states are moving toward decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.

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The risk to privacy may be the biggest issue. If accepting TAFN or other government benefits gives the government the right to regulate your private life, the same could be said about college students accepting grants, government employment, contracts with the state, Social Security, and other possibilities.

The idea of making recipients take drug tests is an appealing idea. After all, it only intrudes into a the private lives of only a few people who are unlikely to raise an objection. On the other hand, I wonder what the limits are once the government has decided it the right to know these kinds of things about any of its citizens.

What level of interaction with the government require surrendering personal liberties? Should we start by drug testing our least fortunate citizens or our highest elected officials?

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