ACLU at the Michigan Capitol – June 27, 2016

As 2014 drew to a close, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law an ill-advised piece of legislation that required a one-year pilot “welfare drug testing” program in three Michigan counties. In short, the program required individuals receiving public assistance to complete a 50-question “suspicion” screening document. Based on that screening, the state then decided who must submit to a blood test to determine if the person used drugs illegally. 

The ACLU has long fought against laws that allow the government to treat entire segments of our society like suspected criminals just because those people are trying to get help to feed their families. These policies are dangerous because they are based on stereotypes that stigmatize people for being poor.

In September 1999, the ACLU of Michigan filed a class-action lawsuit challenging a new law that sought to deny benefits to Michigan welfare recipients if they refused to submit to random drug testing. In April 2000, U.S. District Court judge Victoria Roberts issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law, and that decision was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The parties reached a settlement that allowed the state to conduct pilot programs using suspicion-based drug testing of welfare applicants and recipients in accordance with a system to identify those with substance abuse problems and a requirement that they be referred for professional evaluation. 

The state failed to conduct the program outlined in the settlement. Instead, in 2004/2005, lawmakers introduced HB 6161 to require mandatory welfare-recipient drug testing. They submitted the same bills in 2008/2009 (HB 6580 & 5814), and in 2010/2011 (HB 4409), and in 2012/2013 (SB 904 & HB 5223). All were attempts at welfare drug testing based on an illegal search – the mandatory drug testing of individuals without any suspicion or probable cause.  In each and every attempt, the ACLU reminded the legislature and the Governor that such a drug testing scheme had already been declared unconstitutional, and additionally that there was overwhelming evidence and multiple studies proving that illegal drug use among poor people was not disproportionate.

In 2013, when the same bills were once again introduced (SB 275 & HB 4118), the legislature modified the law to institute a suspicion-based pilot program, as was first agreed upon twelve years earlier when the courts declared mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients unconstitutional.

One might think that because this was a “pilot program”, it was a reasonable step to ensure that illegal drug use was not an issue for people on public assistance.  In fact, we’ve known that for years. And yet, in almost every legislative session since 1999, Michigan lawmakers have attempted to force individuals receiving welfare to submit to random and baseless drug testing under threat of losing their food stamps and other funding that, in many cases, is their only means to feed their children.

This is nothing short of stigmatizing people for being poor, and the ACLU believes it is an inherently invasive and very often an unconstitutional practice. It is also a waste of taxpayer money. We know, as was born out by the year-long program initiated in Michigan, that those on public assistance are no more likely than those who do not receive welfare to use drugs illegally.

Coming full circle, the results of the one-year program signed into law in 2014 are in. And they told us what we already knew - welfare recipients are not especially prone to illegal drug use.  We saw the same “non-issue” results in Arizona, Tennessee, Missouri, and Mississippi, states that also foolishly spent hundreds of thousands and in many cases, millions of dollars on a program that only served to stigmatize and shame people for being poor. Mandatory and random drug testing is unconstitutional and an ineffective means to uncover drug abuse. If lawmakers really want to help people with drug abuse problems and improve outcomes, we should invest in training to appropriately identify those with addictions and support counseling and treatment programs.