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Wisconsin drug-testing rule nabs few offenders

A year after Wisconsin began drug testing able-bodied adults on welfare seeking certain benefits, only 10 people failed the test.

Since the rule went into effect, a total of 1,305 applicants have completed the drug screen, with 30 participants being referred for drug testing.

“Of those 30 referred for drug testing, 8 failed a drug test and were referred for treatment, 2 individuals who failed a test refused treatment,” Joe Scialfa, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF), said in a statement to AMI Newswire.

In November 2015, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker approved the rule written by the DCF that established the process for drug screening, testing, and treatment of individuals seeking job training through three programs: Transform Milwaukee; Transitional Jobs; and the portions of the W-2 program that provide services to noncustodial parents.

At the time, Walker said employers were constantly telling him they had well-paying jobs in high-demand fields, but needed employees to be drug-free.

“These important entitlement reforms will help more people find family-supporting jobs, moving them from government dependence to true independence,” Walker said in a statement.

In March, an additional rule was approved to establish procedures for screening, testing and treatment of parents participating in the Children First program.

DCF receives an appropriation of $250,000 per year from the state legislature to pay for screening, testing and treatment.

“However, the drug screen does not have a cost attached to it,” Scialfa said. “(And) a drug test costs on average $33.”

Additionally, Scialfa said, since most applicants are already covered for treatment through Medicaid, as a payer of last resort for drug treatment, “the cost to the state in minimal.”

Drug testing programs in some other states also have been less fruitful than many may have anticipated.

In Michigan, a year-long pilot program to test a law passed in December 2014 allowing the state to test welfare recipients for substance abuse identified only a sole recipient for testing, according to a report by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Arizona began requiring drug tests for welfare recipients if the state had reason to suspect substance abuse seven years ago.

"We don't want people who are abusing drugs to be on welfare," Republican state Rep. John Kavanagh said in 2009, "because that means that the taxpayers are subsidizing and facilitating illegal drug use."

Five years after implementing the rule, just 3 individuals had failed the test.

Opinions may be split on whether states are crossing the line by putting such provisions in place, but many agree that the root of the issue, substance abuse, needs to be addressed more effectively.

“Addiction crosses all socio-economic lines and all race and ethnic background,” Heather Pfeifer, associate professor for the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore, said. “It is a universal problem.”

The number of states interested in testing for substance abuse continues to grow.

By March, a minimum of 17 states had proposals in 2016 to address substance abuse and drug testing for welfare programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

Wisconsin DCF believes its rule helps addresses a significant barrier to employment.

“Helping Wisconsinites with high employment barriers learn the skills that lead to sustainable employment is the most effective way to combat poverty,” Scialfa said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) disagrees with drug testing welfare recipients.

On its website, the organization said lawmakers and other leaders implement such programs to “score political points at the expense of some of the nation’s most vulnerable communities.”

“Politicians need to end their baseless targeting of welfare applicants and accord them the same respect and privacy they would anyone else,” ACLU wrote.

Scialfa said that only individuals who refuse screening, testing, or treatment are ineligible to participate in department employment programs.