Florida’s Welfare Drug Tests Raise Issues of Rights and Power

Florida’s Welfare Drug Tests Raise Issues of Rights and Power

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When Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law a requirement that Floridians must submit to a drug test before they can get welfare benefits, he raised questions over personal rights, personal privacy and where to set the limits on the power of the state.

Under the new Florida law, recipients run the risk of potentially losing their benefits if they twice test positive for the presence of illicit narcotics.

At first glance, the law seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Florida legislators were informed that from 1999-2001, 8,000 Jacksonville welfare recipients were subjected to random drug testing. Of this number, only 355 tested positive, which is less than 5 percent.

The random tests did not  show an epidemic of drug use, yet the Florida Legislature and its governor moved forward with a serious intrusion of state power into peoples’ lives.

From a civil-rights standpoint, the new law raises serious issues with respect to privacy. Supporters of the law argued that welfare recipients, as beneficiaries of tax dollars, should be screened. There is an inherent equal-protection issue in that tax dollars are also spent on the salaries of state officials. Why not test them?

In fact, Scott wants to do so — he has ordered that state workers reporting to him must submit to random tests, but his executive order does not include all state works. But not all state workers. A good number are exempt, including the very legislators who passed the law, and all of their staff members as well. Scott’s employee drug tests have been challenged in federal court by a scientist working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, so those tests may never actually become policy.

A more sinister aspect of this measure is the subtle racism inherent within the greater issue of welfare reform, where the popular images of “welfare queens” and recipients eating steak and lobster has been used as a wedge to anger white voters who do not realize that the majority of welfare recipients are not African Americans.

A second concern with respect to privacy concerns the reach of government power — where does government intrusion end? Conservative philosophy calls for limited government, yet conservative lawmakers — in Florida and elsewhere — are putting in place policies that expand government power at the expense of personal freedoms.

This is eerily reminiscent of the Florida Legislature’s and Governor Jeb Bush’s attempt in 2005 to keep Terry Schiavo hooked to life support, despite the fact that her husband, Michael, had sworn in multiple court hearings that his wife had often spoken about not wanting to remain in a permanent vegetative state in the event of a serious accident or illness.

In a shameless act of federal overreaching, then U.S. Senator Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, a physician, opined on the Senate floor that as a medical professional he believed Schiavo’s brain showed activity, though numerous medical experts, in sworn testimony in state and federal courts, had already testified there was no such evidence.

The flawed logic in both the Schiavo case and the current issue of drug testing stems from the same hypocrisy that finds some Republicans proclaiming certain principles and beliefs while privately subscribing to different theories.

Perhaps the most notable example occurred during the 2000 Republican primary, when U.S. Senator John McCain, locked in a bitter fight in the Republican presidential primary with social conservative George W. Bush, was asked whether his family would consider an abortion if his teen-age daughter became pregnant.

The senator indicated that his family would consider all options — essentially stating a pro-choice position, despite his campaigning as a pro-life conservative.

The ultimate question is whether Florida’s new law was passed because drug use is considered inherently evil. If the answer is yes, then logic dictates that Scott, the majority Republican Legislature and even members of the judicial branch should be the first in line to set the proper example by being screened for illicit drugs themselves.

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