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Lawmaker returns with rejected plan to test welfare recipients for drugs

By Ike Mgbatogu | 9/12/2013, 10:26 a.m.

Contributing Writer

COLUMBUS – The last time Republican Senator Tim Schaffer tried to convince his colleagues to pass a proposal that would test welfare recipients for drug use, it went nowhere.

Democratic lawmakers and other advocates for the poor intensely pushed back on his proposal, with Republican leadership in the Ohio Senate ultimately deciding to remove it from the mid biennium budget.

It was a sobering defeat for Schaffer. But he hasn’t given up his fight. After his defeat, he vowed to improve his legislation, bring his detractors on board and try again.

Recently, he announced plans to introduce legislation that would establish a program to test adults receiving benefits from Ohio Works First for drugs. It would be a pilot program but, more importantly, he wants it implemented now.

“It is time that we recognize that many families are trying to survive in drug-induced poverty, and we have an obligation to make sure taxpayer’s money is not being used to support drug dealers,” said Schaffer.

He added, “We can no longer turn a blind eye to this problem.”

Schaffer is calling for this program largely following a path paved by eight states that have done it, including Michigan and Florida. But he wants to avoid the kind of lawsuit that bedeviled the program in Michigan where it was ruled unconstitutional because recipients there were required to undergo drug test as part of the application process to receive benefits. That essentially amounts to a violation of their fourth amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Schaffer concedes a major problem with how Michigan went about it and vowed to embrace a different approach.

“A state can’t compel all applicants as a group to take drug test; you have to establish a cause,” he said. That’s why in Ohio, he said that under his plan, adult recipients would only be subjected to drug-test only if they indicate on their application form that they have used drug in the last six months.

Also, under Schaffer’s plan, those who fail the test would be denied benefits for six months and required to undergo drug treatment, to be paid for out of the $100,000 treatment fund his bill proposes.

That’s all fine and dandy, but Democrats aren’t excited.

“No pride should be taken in subjecting some of the poorest Ohioans to the punishing scrutiny that baseless drug testing provides,” they once said in a letter to Governor John Kasich, opposing this plan and asking him to oppose it as well.

They described it as a “terrible” and “mean-spirited” attempt to “stigmatize” poor people.

Calling Schaffer’s plan pure nonsense, and maintaining that illegal drug use is a wider problem of society, they argue that it is extremely unfair to characterize poor people in public assistance program as being the only group grappling with that problem.

Representative Robert Hagan, who has anchored the Democratic pushback on this issue, months ago, introduced a counter legislation requiring that any mandate to test welfare recipients for drugs would have to be applied to state elected officials, Supreme Court Justices and members of JobsOhio board, as well.

He said that “It is hypocritical to demand that the average Ohioan and working poor should be held to a higher standard than the political elite in this state.”

Schaffer’s effort to implement the program in Ohio is also playing out in about 30 other states across the nation, where some have passed similar laws or are at various stages of doing so.

Mgbatogu is a freelance writer and editor of Onumba.com based in Columbus. He can be reached by email at Onumbamedia@yahoo.com