In a letter today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan urged the Flint Housing Commission to reconsider a proposal to require all public subsidized housing tenants to submit to mandatory drug testing without suspicion.

“The courts have been clear – individuals do not lose their constitutional rights simply because they are poor. Being poor is not a crime in Michigan and the Flint Housing Commission should not be treating all tenants as if they are criminals,” said Greg Gibbs, ACLU of Michigan Flint Branch president. “Such drug tests are not only humiliating and unconstitutional; they are a flagrant waste of resources that reinforce stereotypes about economically disadvantaged residents.”

In May, Rod Slaughter, executive director of the Flint Housing Commission was quoted in the Flint Journal expressing his desire to force public housing tenants over the age of 18 to submit to drug tests as a condition of their lease. According to the Flint Journal article, the drug tests would be mandatory regardless of whether there was reason to suspect that any individual was using drugs.

In its 6-page letter, the ACLU of Michigan reminds the Commission that, in 2000, the ACLU successfully challenged a similar state program in which the State of Michigan attempted to impose mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients. In this class-action lawsuit, the federal court ordered the state to stop the program. Later a settlement was reached that allowed the state to drug test welfare recipients only when there is reasonable suspicion that they are using drugs.

In its letter, the ACLU also warns that the proposed policy violates the privacy rights of tenants and makes the dangerous assumption that all people applying for assistance are violating the law. In addition, the ACLU contends that poor people are being singled out and treated differently than others who receive government assistance. For example, while poor people applying for public housing are treated like criminals other groups like General Motors executives were not required to be tested for drugs before taking advantage of a taxpayer-backed bailout. Additionally, students at the University of Michigan-Flint are not required to submit to humiliating tests in exchange for government aide and no drug tests were required as a condition of the largest housing subsidy in our history – the 2009 mortgage-interest deduction, which cost the government $100 billion.

The ACLU wrote: “We understand your good intentions in trying to help tenants who use drugs. However, mandatory drug testing is both an ineffective and fiscally irresponsible means to discover drug abuse.”

With each drug test costing an average of $42, not including other costs associated with implementing the program, and the fact that poor people are no more likely to use drugs than others, the ACLU asserts that there are less expensive and more effective means to address drug abuse. For instance, the Commission can screen for drug abuse using questionnaires and by training employees to identify signs of drug abuse.