I’d Support Drug-Testing the Poor

     I’d sign on to forced drug-testing of the poorest Americans, as Florida and other states want to do to those who depend day-to-day on public assistance, if all those who depend on public assistance, say, budget-year over budget-year, were similarly tested and penalized for flunking. Broaden the program, force quarterly drug tests on many more and, were they to fail, they’d lose, immediately and for good, the public monies, state and federal, that keep them afloat and and which they take for granted.

     I suggest, for starters

          . military contractor CEOs and directors

          . students who use publicly funded loans or grants or scholarships to attend colleges and/or universities

          . research university presidents, deans, professors, and grad students and the companies that benefit from their research

          . CEOs and directors who accepted bail-outs

          . CEOs and directors who lobby for and accept tax-breaks

          . Sports team owners whose stadia are at least partially funded by the public

          . Business owners who rely on public funds for street and sewer upkeep and police and fire protection

          . Agribusiness CEOs whose corporations are paid by the government not to grow certain crops in certain years and/or are given price-supports

          . Everyone who has ever deducted a donation

          . Every student at every public university whose tuition is kept lower than private university tuition as a result of state and federal taxes

You can imagine many worthy others.

     Florida has led the way along these  lines. Until it couldn’t.  The United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled unconstitutional the 2011 Florida law requiring its poorest to submit to drug tests in order to continue on public assistance. A Florida state court had also blocked the law but then-Governor Rick Scott appealed. He lost because the judges held that the Florida statute violated the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches. The 11h Circuit held further that Florida failed to show “‘a substantial special need’ in requiring applicants” [and those now receiving assistance] to be drug-tested in the absence of any evidence of drug use among those receiving or applying for public assistance. (By “special need” the court meant there appears to be no need to test the poor, as a class, any more than there would be a need to test other groups of people who get state and federal assistance such as those categories of people I’ve listed above.)

     In other words, Florida presented no reason besides ingrained prejudice against the poor to believe these recipients and potential recipients, as a class, were any more likely than any other group to use illegal drugs.  The case against the state was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a Navy veteran, Luis Lebron. Even in its state courts, Florida offered no reason to think that Mr. Lebron was a user of illegal drugs. Florida assumed he and the many like him in terrible economic straits used illegal drugs and were, as a class of people, more likely to use them.  The state also smugly assumed that the veteran’s poverty, that, solely, would convince the court that Mr. Lebron, and that the poor in general, used, and are more likely to use drugs, than other groups of citizens.

     Bigots tend to think others naturally share their prejudices.  That assumption’s common and pernicious; it’s most often the result of small-minded ignorance, a bad basis for public policy.

     It ought not take the federal courts to stop state legislatures’ ongoing war on the poor. As we stand as a nation just now, though, I’m grateful we have these courts. One needn’t hold with all their decisions to understand they’re often all that protects this country from its basest historical and resurrected impulses.

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