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Should Rhode Island Start Drug Testing Welfare Recipients?

Cash aid is available to Rhode Island residents who can verify that they are struggling financially and in need of assistance. A new bill is seeking to ensure that those who receive cash assistance from the state are not using the money to buy drugs and would do so by instituting a random drug test in the verification process. Not only would applicants potentially undergo drug screening but at any point they may be asked to take a drug test to continue to verify that they are drug-free. Should the individual test positive at any point, they would lose their cash aid for up to a year according to the proposal set forth by Republican Senator Elaine Morgan.

Said Senator Morgan: “If working Rhode Islanders’ tax dollars are being used to fund this program, the people who accept this money should be subject to the same random drug testing they might encounter in the workplace.”

Should Rhode Island Start Drug Testing Welfare Recipients?

The proposal spawned – and addressed – a number of questions concerned about what would happen to the families of an individual who was found to be using illicit substances and/or living with an active substance use disorder.

For example, the benefits allocated for dependent children of the applicant would not be revoked. Also, because medical marijuana is legal in Rhode Island, use of the drug that is verified to be validated with a prescription would be allowed. Additionally, an applicant who tests positive and agrees to attend a drug treatment program would be allowed to reapply after six months.

Do you think that drug testing welfare applicants in Rhode Island is a good idea?

Currently, a minimum of 15 states have some form of legislation in place that provides for drug testing or drug screening along the lines of what Senator Morgan is proposing. Additionally, many taxpayers feel strongly that they do not want their money to support ongoing drug use, which in turn would encourage drug trafficking and drug-related crimes that would impact their quality of life. Helping someone who is struggling to pay rent or to keep the lights on is one thing, but giving them money that either directly pays for drugs or frees them up to maintain an addiction is only enabling an ongoing deadly disease.

The fact that treatment is provided for and that dependent children would still have some level of support is important to many people who may not have otherwise supported the legislation. Identifying those who are struggling with addiction is just the first step; helping them and their families to get treatment and heal is the essential next step.

A number of people say that enacting drug testing for welfare applicants is unconstitutional. Specifically, the ACLU has stood up against drug testing as a requirement for eligibility for public assistance, calling it a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, the Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful search and seizure, and it is not unlawful for businesses, including the government, to require employees to drug test as a condition of employment; thus, it seems fair and appropriate that this may be the case for someone applying for government funds.

Others point out that it is not cost-effective – that when drug testing is applied across the board, the cost of the tests is higher than the amount of money “saved” by the retraction of government funds to those who have an addiction. This is addressed in this particular piece of legislation with the word “random.” This means that not every applicant will be required to drug test as a condition of receipt of funds but that some will be chosen at random at different points in their verification and application process, keeping down the initial cost.

What we also know to be true is that treatment works, and that people who are struggling to the point that they are unable to maintain employment, especially if there are dependent children involved, are in serious need of assistance. We know that providing treatment for addiction is far more effective (and cost-effective) than simply jailing someone for a period of time, which may happen if the problem was revealed by law enforcement due to drug-related activities rather than the State of Rhode Island Department of Human Services.

What do you think? Is random drug testing an effective and appropriate choice for Rhode Island?

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