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Drug-testing bill has local support

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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All recipients of public assistance would undergo drug testing if a bill that some north country lawmakers support becomes law.


State Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, support the Senate version. Assemblymen Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, and William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski, support the bill in the Assembly.


Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, does not.


The bill would require every recipient of public assistance to undergo a drug test. The recipient would be referred to drug treatment on failure of a test.


Supporters of the measure say that the purpose is to prevent people from using taxpayers dollars to fund drug habits and that public assistance recipients will benefit from being drug tested.


Opponents said the bill wouldn't save money, unfairly targets poor people and is unconstitutional.


"I think this is something inherently wrong — someone receiving public assistance also doing drugs," Mr. Barclay said. "I think the cycle of poverty and drugs go hand in hand."


Mr. Barclay and other supporters of the bill said that in the long term, drug testing recipients of public assistance would save money because people who fail the test would be required to seek drug counseling. Once helped with their addictions, those people would be able to get jobs and contribute to society again, Mr. Barclay said, providing an incentive that is harder to quantify, but powerful.


But the program would be costly in the short term — though the bill leaves its financial implications to be decided.


The Post-Standard of Syracuse estimated that drug testing would cost $30 million just in the first phase, a figure at which it arrived by multiplying 3 million — the number of public assistance recipients in the state — by $10, the cost of a simple, at-home drug test.


"A more sensible approach would be to screen people and identify people for whom there is a reason to do a deeper assessment," said Elizabeth A. Schott, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.


State law already does that for welfare applicants. They must fill out a questionnaire, and depending on their answers, they can be subjected to a drug test or drug counseling.


That's why Mrs. Russell does not support the drug-testing measure, she said.


"We already have an existing approach that is aimed at reducing the cost of taxpayers for people that use drugs," Mrs. Russell said. "I don't think it would be wise to institute as a policy. It would be duplicative."


Jefferson County does not directly screen any of its applicants, even though that's permitted by state law.


In February, 117 people applied to the county Department of Social Services, according to Commissioner Laura C. Cerow.


Fifty-five of those 117 were referred to additional drug screening because of a preliminary questionnaire by a social worker. Only 37 of those 55 followed through on it, so the 18 people who did not were denied benefits.


Of the 37 who went to additional screening, 23 needed some form of drug treatment as part of their job training, Mrs. Cerow said.


The bill's Republican sponsors are undeterred.


"I think that's missing the point," Mr. Barclay said. "The point is we don't want to keep people on public assistance forever. I think there's definitely a link between drug use and poverty, and being able to hold a job."


The bill's opponents say that it unfairly targets poor people because it's based on the false assumption that people on welfare are more likely to be drug users.


According to a 1996 study by the National Institutes of Health, a government research agency, welfare recipients do not abuse drugs or alcohol more often than people who do not depend on those programs.


"You gotta ask yourself at the end of the day, why are you doing this?" said Sen. Liz Krueger, a New York City Democrat. "Is it to get people treatment? Or is it to stigmatize and discourage people from getting help in the first place?"


The bill also could run into major legal problems. It doesn't specify which "public assistance programs" would be subjected to the restrictions. New York has a wide variety of programs that may or may not fall under that umbrella.


And a federal court struck down a similar measure in 1999 in Michigan, based on the Fourth Amendment right to protection from unwarranted searches and seizures.


"I would leave that for the legal scholars to determine," Mr. Griffo said. "Everything we do here could potentially have to withstand some legal challenge."


Robert A. Perry, the legislative director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said he was more certain about the law's constitutionality. The American Civil Liberties Union brought the 1999 lawsuit that ended the Michigan drug testing.


"It's based on a poor understanding of both science and law," he said. "What's more, it's really fiscally irresponsible."


But supporters said that taxpayers will benefit — and so will public assistance recipients.


"It's strange that people think helping others out of a substance abuse problem is not helpful to them," said James E. Reagen, a spokesman for Mrs. Ritchie. "You want to help them get a job, you want to help them get an education, the first step has to be to get them healthy enough to do those things."

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