Whitesburg KY

Kentucky lawmaker wants welfare recipients tested for illegal drug use


Welfare recipients would be tested for drugs and those found positive would lose their benefits under a proposal that is encountering strong opposition in Kentucky.

State Rep. Melvin Henley, DMurray, said he filed legislation to require the drug tests in response to concerns raised by working-class constituents in his western Kentucky district.

“It makes sense to a person who has to work for a living and has to undergo drug testing and who sees people on welfare who don’t have to abide by any rules,” Henley said.

Critics contend the legislation is unconstitutional and that it would have unintended victims – children.

“Welfare is for the children, and so if you’re doing such a thing, you’re punishing the children,” said John Rosenberg, former head of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund in Prestonsburg. “I don’t think that’s what we really want to do.”

Michigan briefly required drug tests for welfare recipients in 1999 but was ordered by a federal judge to stop just weeks into the program when the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit. After a federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled the law unconstitutional in 2003, Michigan officials reached an out-of-court settlement with the ACLU, agreeing to stop the drug-testing program.

Henley said he wanted to pursue the issue in Kentucky even though it failed in Michigan.

“I’ve gotten a number of complaints from constituents wondering why they have to be drug tested to maintain a job and people on public assistance are free to do as they please,” he said. “They don’t feel that it’s fair, and I tend to agree.”

The measure is languishing in the House Health and Welfare Committee. Committee Chairman Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said he doesn’t intend to call it up for consideration.

“I don’t think it’s a good bill, and I don’t think the intention behind it is good,” Burch said. “Let’s get treatment for the person rather than penalize the whole family.”

Vikki Franklin, spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said her agency is still reviewing the bill and hasn’t taken a position for or against it.

Graham Boyd, director of ACLU’s Drug Law Reform Project, said Kentucky would become the only state in the nation that requires drug testing as a requirement to receive welfare benefits. He said Michigan is the only state that attempted it.

“The courts have ruled that it would be illegal,” Boyd said. “Every other state has rejected it as too costly. And studies have proved that it’s not effective in reducing drug abuse.”

Opponents also say if such a measure passes, it could cause innocent children to go hungry, perhaps even putting parents in such hardship that they have to surrender custody of their kids to the state.

Henley argues that children would likely be better off in drugfree foster homes than with a parent who is an addict.

He said he hasn’t given up all hope for the bill.

“It’s difficult to get a controversial bill through the legislature,” he said. “But you never know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

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