Will Oklahoma Unemployed Become New Casualties In Drug War?

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

A legislative bill that would require people seeking unemployment benefits to be drug tested for illegal drugs could add needless bureaucracy and costs to state government and is most likely unconstitutional because it violates the right to privacy.

The bill, if signed into law, would also basically humiliate people, who through no fault of their own lost their jobs, by associating unemployment with an assumed guilt of using illegal drugs.

It’s a bad bill that would create a bad law that contradicts federal regulations, but as one writer on Huffington Post recently put it, “Unemployed Oklahomans probably won't be peeing into cups anytime soon.”

State Rep. Dustin Roberts, a Durant Republican, has introduced House Bill 1045, which requires the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC) to drug test applicants making initial unemployment claims. It states:

An unemployed individual filing an initial claim for unemployment benefits shall be tested for illegal drugs through a program established by the Commission. Those persons refusing to submit to the drug test, or having a confirmed positive drug test, shall not be eligible to receive benefits under the Employment Security Act of 1980. The Commission shall promulgate rules to implement the provisions of this section.

Roberts’ point, according to an Oklahoma House press release, is to discourage drug addiction.

“I think it is good policy and one we should use with any state-paid benefits that might be misused by an addict,” Roberts said. “I know that my constituents do not want to support a drug addiction with tax dollars.”

Roberts doesn’t explain how drug testing unemployed people will make one iota of difference in the rate of drug addiction in this state. The bill seems designed more to simply hassle people who have already lost a job and are probably concerned about their basic survival.

Roberts said his proposal is similar to a recent drug-screening program for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients that was mandated by the legislature last year, but that program doesn’t actually drug test everyone.

The cost of Roberts’ program could be huge. According to the OESC web site, 170,802 people filed initial claims for unemployment in 2011, but a large chunk of those people were denied benefits because their former employers disputed their claims based on a variety of factors.

Roberts’ bill doesn’t make it clear when a person would be drug tested in the process and who would pay for it. A drug test costs around $30, according to one media report. The bill would obviously create another bureaucratic regulation within the OESC, and that could cost money as well.

A recently passed Florida law, which wound up under judicial review, requires the drug testing of welfare recipients. It has proven to be highly ineffective in terms of cost. The Florida law requires recipients to pay for their own tests initially, but they are reimbursed the $30 if no illegal drugs are found in their systems. During a four-month period in 2012, the state paid $45,780 more in costs over what would have been paid overall without the program.

The larger issue here is that such drug testing is obviously a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The act of becoming unemployed, especially in cases in which people are laid off for financial reasons out of their control, cannot be seen as a reasonable cause for a search of their “persons.”

On a pragmatic level, people who use moderate amounts of recreational drugs, such as marijuana, should NOT be automatically considered “addicts” or deemed unemployable or unqualified to seek employment. Our last three presidents admitted to past illegal drug use. Why didn’t they get drug tested on a regular basis? The states of Colorado and Washington have even legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Drug addiction is a major problem in Oklahoma, but what we need are more drug treatment centers, awareness and decriminalization of simple possession cases.

Roberts’ bill, if passed, would only create more legal challenges and add a burden to the state government. If he’s so concerned about drug addiction, then he should partner with Gov. Mary Fallin in seeking more money for mental health issues in Oklahoma this legislative session, instead of proposing a way to humiliate people when they’re down and out.