Fla. welfare applicants less likely to use drugs

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Associated Press

Posted on September 27, 2011 at 7:06 PM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Preliminary figures on a new Florida law requiring drug tests for welfare applicants show that they are less likely than other people to use drugs, not more. One famous Floridian suggests that it's the people who came up with the law who should be submitting specimens.

Columnist and best-selling author Carl Hiaasen offered to pay for drug testing for all 160 members of the Florida Legislature in what he called "a patriotic whiz-fest." Several of the law's supporters say they're on board.

"There is a certain public interest in going after hypocrisy," Hiaasen said Tuesday, two days after he made his proposal in a Miami Herald column.

"Folks that are applying for DCF (Department of Children and Families) money normally wouldn't be standing in that line, and on top of that humiliation they now get to pee in a cup so they can get grocery money for their kids," Hiaasen told The Associated Press in an interview at his Vero Beach home.

Gov. Rick Scott and other supporters of the law — the only one of its kind currently on the books in the U.S. — say the tests will save the state cash by weeding out people who would use welfare money on drugs. Critics say that just a few months after it went into effect, the law has already refuted the idea that people receiving public assistance are more likely to use drugs.

Preliminary figures show that about 2.5 percent of up to 2,000 applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families have tested positive since the law went into effect in July. Another 2 percent declined to take the test, Department of Children and Families officials say.

The Justice Department estimates that 6 percent of Americans 12 and older use illegal drugs.

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the law, saying it violates welfare applicants' constitutional right against unreasonable searches. For that reason, a federal appellate court struck down a similar Michigan law in 2003.

The state hasn't said how much it believes it has saved by requiring the drug tests, but some of the law's most ardent backers say they're willing to take Hiaasen up on his offer.

"Tell him to write the check," said Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Bennett. "I'll be the first one to take it."

The Bradenton Republican said he'd even sponsor a bill that would require legislators to get urine tests — and require Hiassen to pay for them.

"Half the citizens of the state of Florida probably think half of the Legislature is on drugs, anyhow," Bennett cracked. "Nobody knows which half. That's the problem."

Rep. Jimmie Smith, an Inverness Republican who sponsored the measure, is also happy to accept. He's a retired staff sergeant who ran an Army testing program as his unit's drug coordinator.

Some legislative opponents of the law leaned against Hiaasen's idea, including Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston. She had suggested — tongue-in-cheek — that lawmakers themselves agree to drug tests when the legislation was debated.

"I personally would be willing to be drug-tested, but again I don't think you should be testing anybody unless there is a reasonable suspicion that they are taking drugs," Rich said in an interview.

"It's not a good return on investment ..., a waste of Carl Hiaasen's money," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who voted against the legislation. "He should use the money to help the homeless."

Hiaasen, though, said he thought the tests would be well worth the cost: $10 to $25 each.

"It would have an incredibly high entertainment value for me, and I'd probably get another column out of it," he said.

He said he'd also pay for a drug test for Scott.

The Republican governor not only urged lawmakers to pass the drug testing requirement, but ordered agencies under his control to test all new hires and do random testing of existing employees. He put the policy on hold, except for the Department of Corrections, due to a separate court challenge.

Scott spokesman Lane Wright noted that the governor's office had a random drug testing policy for its employees before Scott was elected. He said the governor himself has not been tested since taking office in January but is "willing to be drug tested now."

Hiaasen qualified his offer by saying he'd pay for the legislative drug tests only if all lawmakers took them together at the start of the legislative session in January.

"That way when the crazy stuff starts to happen a month or two later people won't just automatically assume that they're all stoned," he said. "The reality will set in that these people ... actually don't have any drugs in their system and they're still acting this way."

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Associated Press writer Tony Winton in Vero Beach contributed to this report.

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