SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has spent more than $30,000 to screen welfare applicants for drug use since a new law went into effect a year ago, but only 12 people have tested positive, state figures show.
The preliminary data from August 2012 through July 2013 indicates the state spent almost $6,000 to give 4,730 applicants a written test. After 466 showed a likelihood of drug use, they were given drug tests at a total cost of more than $25,000, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which administers welfare benefits and the tests.
"Obviously drug use among this population is not an issue," said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger and a longtime welfare-reform advocate.
Lawmakers should instead use the money to address barriers to employment such as low-reading skills, she said.
Kaysville Republican Rep. Brad Wilson, who sponsored the legislation last year, said in an email that the 12 people netted by drug tests might not represent the full picture.
Wilson pointed out that 24 percent of applicants who were required to take a drug test didn't and did not continue in the application process. He said the process could be identifying applicants with drug issues who did not want to follow through and get treatment.
"If people don't want to be tested because they know the results are going to be positive, they shouldn't get benefits and now they don't," Wilson said.
He believes welfare applicants have substance abuse issues at a rate comparable to the general population, and testing helps them get treatment as they try to return to work.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, a South Jordan Republican who co-sponsored the legislation, did not respond to requests for comment.
Utah is one of at least eight states that have passed legislation requiring testing or screening for public assistance applicants. Similar laws have been proposed in at least 29 states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Critics, however, have said the laws unfairly stigmatize poor people and waste taxpayer money. Legal challenges have called the testing a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
In Florida, 108 people tested positive for drugs among the more than 4,000 tested. Florida's law was temporarily halted by a federal judge, and a federal appeals court upheld the ban in February. Gov. Rick Scott has said he's planning to appeal the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Michigan instituted a random drug-testing policy on welfare recipients that was stopped by a judge after five weeks. A four-year court battle followed before a federal appeals court ruled the policy unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed legal challenges against the policies in other states but not in Utah.
Marina Lowe with the ACLU of Utah said her organization opposes the state law, but it's not a clear violation of protections against searches without probable cause, as policies were in other states.
Utah does not randomly target applicants or require all applicants to undergo a drug test.
Instead, applicants must complete a written questionnaire designed to screen for substance abuse. Drugs tests are then performed on those rated as having a high probability of using drugs.
Utah's law also doesn't disqualify people who test positive from receiving benefits. Instead, it requires them to enter substance abuse treatment.
Lowe said Friday her organization was taking another look at Utah's policy because the number of people identified as likely drug users was far greater than those who actually tested positive. An argument could be made that the screening test doesn't satisfy the burden of probable cause, she said.
"In light of these numbers, I think it begs the question of whether Utah is any different," she said.
Cornia, of Utahns Against Hunger, said efforts to drug-test welfare applicants are based on an assumption that people are unemployed because they did something wrong.
"It must be because you're using drugs. It must be because you're lazy," she said. "It plays into all those really negative stereotypes that I think prevents us from making really good public policy."
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