Ohio might be the next state to start drug testing welfare applicants. Does that ‘work?’ Here’s what we’ve learned from other states:


Ohio Representatives Ron Maag (R) and Tim Schaffer (R) plan to introduce a bill in the Ohio General Assembly to exact the purpose of screening and testing welfare applicants for drugs. The representatives are proposing a two-year pilot program in three counties, though it’s yet to be determined which counties those would be. The proposal is supposed to get at two issues in the state of Ohio: our raging drug epidemic, and our never-ending efforts to cut “unnecessary” or “wasteful” spending. ‘So, why not connect the two?’ the logic of this bill goes. But, the question that should be on our minds as citizens is, does this sort of policy actually work?

The great thing about having 50 states with 50 independent legislatures is that we can look to other states that have tried out certain policies, and, among other things, avoid duplicating their mistakes. 13 other states have implemented some form of drug testing for welfare recipients on the premise that it will address drug abuse and save welfare dollars. Of those, there are eight states that have implemented this form of drug testing for welfare recipients that we can look to to ask the basic questions. Which programs led to the most savings? Which had the highest costs? Did drug abuse go down? Did indicators of public welfare remain unaffected?

First, let’s talk about Michigan and Florida. In 1999, the state of Michigan passed a law mandating drug testing for all welfare recipients. After a four-year battle, an appeals court found the law unconstitutional. Meanwhile, elsewhere, during the 2011 bath salts drug panic, Governor Rick Scott of Florida pushed for (and passed) a welfare drug testing program. Appeals courts again found that requiring a drug test qualified as unlawful search and seizure, and the law was found unconstitutional. The court also noted that the mere 2.6% of welfare recipients that actually tested positive for drugs did not demonstrate a substantial drug problem among welfare recipients. Rather, that’s a drug use rate that shatters that of the state as a whole. In a 2009-2010 report, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 8.42 percent of Florida residents reported using illicit drugs in the past month.

Still, in the last five years these eight states have implemented their own drug testing programs for welfare recipients. In order to avoid Florida and Michigan’s fate of unconstitutionality, these other states mandate a pre-screening process, in which they ask questions so as to justify their search. Welfare applicants who indicate they may use illicit drugs are the ones referred for mandatory testing. If they test positive, they’re denied welfare benefits and are referred to the state’s addiction services.

Here’s a breakdown of this program from state to state:


Invested: $336,294

Total welfare applicants: 38,970

Total positive drug tests: 48

Rate of positive tests: .12%

Cost per positive test: $7006


Invested: $385,872

Total welfare applicants: 3,342

Total positive drug tests: 297

Rate of positive tests: 8.8%

Cost per positive test: $1299


Invested: $64,566

Total welfare applicants: 9,552

Total positive drug tests: 29

Rate of positive tests: .3%

Cost per positive test: $2,226


Invested: $40,000

Total welfare applicants: 2,783

Total positive drug tests: 11

Rate of positive tests: .39%

Cost per positive test: $3,636


Invested: $5,290

Total welfare applicants: 3,656

Total positive drug tests: 2

Rate of positive tests: .05%

Cost per positive test: $2,645


Invested: $5,295

Total welfare applicants: 16,017

Total positive drug tests: 37

Rate of positive tests: .23%

Cost per positive test: $143


Invested: $499

Total welfare applicants: 142,424

Total positive drug tests: 3

Rate of positive tests: .002%

Cost per positive test: $166


Invested: $624

Total welfare applicants: 5,700

Total positive drug tests: 1

Rate of positive tests: .017%

Cost per positive test: $624

These eight states have collectively spent nearly $1 million drug testing welfare recipients, on the premise that restricting welfare benefits to drug users will help the system cut costs. The cost to the program per positive drug test ranges from $143 in Tennessee to $7,006 in Missouri. Meanwhile, the rate of positive drug tests among the total number of welfare applicants ranges from .002% in Arizona to 8.8% in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is the only state that reported a drug use rate higher than 1%, yet Oklahoma’s high outlier is still lower than the national rate of illicit drug use, which stands at 9.4%.

It seems that drug testing welfare applicants might not be the best way to reach the greatest number of those needing drug addiction services, and could end up costing the state of Ohio far more than the proponents of this measure intend, or would wish people to know about.

Not surprisingly, this won’t be the first time a bill like this has appeared in Ohio’s Statehouse. In 2013, Republican state legislators introduced a similar proposal. At that time, State Senator Nina Turner responded by introducing her own bill, calling for drug testing of all state legislators. Neither bill passed.