Drug Testing the Poor: Unconstitutional and Un-American

Gary C. Mitchell, ACLU-NM Board President

At a time when unemployment is high and families are struggling, Representative Steve Pearce (NM-2) picks a callous moment to create unnecessary hurdles for Americans to obtain needed public benefits.

Recently, Rep. Pearce filed H.R. 3615 and H.R. 3722, bills that would require people to submit to arbitrary drug testing as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Soon after, county commissioners here in Lincoln County, where I reside, went so far as to adopt a resolution in support of these wrong-headed bills. Aside from being mean-spirited and unduly suspicious of people who have fallen on hard times, these bills are almost certainly unconstitutional.


Just last fall, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of U.S. Navy veteran Luis Lebron, who rightly refuses to accept warrantless and suspicionless government seizure of his bodily fluids under the state law that requires drug testing of welfare applicants. Lebron, 35, is a single father to his four-year-old son, takes care of his mentally disabled mother, and is trying to finish his college degree. He does not take illegal substances, but the Florida “pee in this cup” law treats him like a criminal just because he needs government assistance while he works to build a better life for his family.


Louis Lebron, 35-year-old U.S. Navy Veteran

In October, a federal judge temporary blocked the Florida law, stating that “The constitutional rights of a class of citizens are at stake.” Another ACLU lawsuit overturned a similar law in Michigan in 2006.

We know from a 1996 study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that welfare recipients are no more likely to use illegal drugs than other Americans. According to drug testing data that was collected in Florida prior to the court’s ruling, only 2 percent of all applicants tested positive for illegal substances—far below the estimated national average of 8 percent. It is hard to imagine that, in light of these facts, any fair-minded American would support laws designed to humiliate and demonize the thousands of people like Lebron who need temporary assistance in these difficult times.


Making drug testing mandatory for seekers of unemployment and welfare benefits  accomplishes nothing but punishing people for being poor. As a public policy it has no basis in science or medicine, and serves only to further stigmatize and demean low-income families.

In fact, science and medical experts overwhelmingly oppose drug testing people who receive public assistance. Over twenty major medical and scientific organizations, including the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, the American Public Health Association and the National Association of Social Workers, Inc., officially opposed the implementation of Michigan’s scheme to drug test welfare recipients. It seems common sense that laws that address social and public health problems should be based on sound social and medical science—not prejudicial assumptions.


We can do better than this. It is true that some people in our nation struggle with substance abuse, but there are ways to approach this public health problem that are more effective, respectful and consistent with our values.

Just because a person is low-income, unlucky or unemployed does not make them somehow less deserving of the constitutional protections and basic human dignity. As Americans, we must stand up and  reject the impulse to treat our neighbors like criminal suspects when they fall on hard times. We must repudiate the idea that the government can violate the privacy of our bodies, simply to satisfy the mean-spirited political agenda of a cynical few.


Instead, we should treat our fellow citizens and our shared rights as if they matter.


Rep. Pearce would do well to remember that he represents all people in his district, not just the affluent, the fortunate and the powerful. Rather than spending his time picking on the poor, Rep. Pearce should busy himself supporting legislation that will help stabilize the economy and put the unemployed back to work.


Gary Mitchell

President of the Board of Directors for
the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico

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Posted in Featured Articles, Freedom Forum
3 comments on “Drug Testing the Poor: Unconstitutional and Un-American
  1. Robbie says:

    (((shaking head))) I believe paying public assistance benefits to drug users is a violation of MY rights! People have to drug test to get a job….is that unconstitutional? Why aren’t you fighting for job seeker rights? Give me a break. It is a violation of MY rights when I see a cart full of convenience foods and better cuts of meat than I have being paid for by the (don’t embarrass them with “food STAMPS”) government “credit card” while not speaking a word of English. ACLU needs to get a clue….no respect from most anyone I know.

  2. Doug says:

    While I agree with you that this may not be the right way to go about it, something needs to be done to curb the mass fraud that runs rampant in welfare & food stamp programs. There are too many “professional” welfare recipients out there that have more kids just so their EBT & benefits goes up. Then they sell it at 50 cents on the dollar to buy things EBT doesn’t cover. There needs to be time limits for welfare (as your article states “temporary assistance”) and some kind of a means test to receive food stamps. I have a perfectly healthy 23 year old step son that is just too lazy to work and he lays around playing video games all day and collects over $500.00 a month in food stamps.(No he doesn’t live with me). He isn’t even looking for a job and yet the EBT cards just keep coming. They should at least have to prove that they are trying. This is a HUGE waste of our tax dollars!

  3. Cheryl says:

    Basically, even though I “had” a job, “had” a vehicle, and I “had” a home for my children, though now I go hungry, walk everywhere when I have enough strength, both of my children are living with other family members in separate homes, I sleep on a garage floor in inhumane temperatures, not to mention my suffering from a 17mm slipped disc in my lower back, all after a co-worker posed to enforce a random OSHA safety and health inspection and after I refused was wrongfully terminated after I reported his misconduct to the owner, further asking for representation due to their not using a certified lab for the collection, my understanding of what your belief is constitutional and acceptable, perhaps maybe I missed something, I do not consume illegal drugs nor do I consume those of which have been prescribed to me unless I absolutely cannot avoid doing so, I am 34 years old my rights have been stripped away by our state government and as God is my witness this type of unethical and invasive demand is the last thing I believe to be anything but constitutionaly acceptable.

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