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Utah is one of more than a dozen states with laws requiring welfare applicants to undergo drug testing or screening, a policy that some say stigmatizes the poor.
In Utah, critics have said the policy wastes money because very few welfare applicants have tested positive for drugs.
Supporters argue people relying on government assistance will have a harder time finding a job if they have a substance abuse problem.
Democratic lawmaker Angela Romero of Salt Lake City sought to remove Utah's drug screening requirement this year. As part of a compromise with Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who sponsored the drug screening law passed in 2012, the program would instead be revamped so welfare recipients only take a drug test if a social worker recommends it.
The Legislature has unanimously approved the proposal. Jon Cox, a spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said the governor supports the concept of the proposal but won't yet say whether he'll sign it. He has until March 30 to do so.
Here are things to know about the program and proposed changes:
UTAH LAW • Utah's law, passed in 2012, does not randomly target applicants or require all applicants to undergo a drug test, as other states have proposed. Instead, applicants for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program 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. If someone tests positive for drug use, Utah allows them to continue receiving benefits as long as they enter treatment for substance abuse.
COST AND RESULTS • In the first three years of Utah's program, 13,799 people applied for benefits, according to data from Utah's Department of Workforce Services, which administers welfare benefits and the tests. Out of those applicants, 2,666 were flagged as having a high probability of a substance abuse problem and were required to take a drug test. About 630 people failed to do so and lost benefits. Of those who did take a test, only 47 people were found to have drugs in their system. Critics of the program point to the fact that Utah spent more than $93,000 on the program over three years, but less than 2 percent of those the identified as having a high probability of a drug problem actually tested positive.
Despite the relatively low number, Wilson said he thinks the program has been a success. "Even if we only helped a dozen or two or three dozen people, and caught them earlier in the process in terms of getting them help and off drugs and eliminated their substance use problems, that's two or three dozen people that we helped," he said.
NEW PROCESS • Under the new proposal, the drug screening questionnaire would be taken after someone is in the program and eligible for benefits. If the questionnaire rates the participant as likely drug abuser, they must meet with a licensed clinical social worker who will then determine if the person needs a drug test. Those who then test positive for drugs would be required to undergo treatment and further drug tests to keep receiving benefits.
COURT CHALLENGES • Laws passed by other states have been challenged in court as a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Utah's law has not been challenged, but American Civil Liberties Union of Utah warned that it could be. So few applicants tested positive for drugs that the state's questionnaire system may not be enough to establish the government had probable cause to order drug tests, according to Marina Lowe with the ACLU of Utah. Lowe said the proposal to revamp the program is a good fix.