Clashing Views at Hearing on Maine Welfare Drug Testing Plan

Aug 25, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine - The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine says a plan to require some welfare recipients to submit to drug testing is unconstitutional.  Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew says Maine has an obligation to ensure the program's cash benefits are not being used to subsidize drug habits. The department took testimony on the plan today.

For nearly four years, Gov. Paul LePage has wanted to impose drug-testing requirements for welfare recipients. In 2011, lawmakers agreed to testing for those convicted of drug-related felonies. Now, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew says the state will begin enforcing the law that was passed. "This is a first step, we are anxious to move forward on this," Mayhew said.

The drug testing requirement affects only those Mainers enrolled in the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program - also known as TANF -- and only those TANF clients who have prior drug felony convictions. If clients who are found to be illegally using drugs agree to participate in drug rehab, the proposed rule allows their benefits to be restored.

But Mayhew says those who test positive for drugs and do not ask for an administrative hearing, and do not enroll in a substance abuse program, will lose their benefits.

"We are confident in the way in which this is structured that we can move forward with this common sense approach to drug testing, which pertains to the use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits that are intended for basic necessities, shelter, clothing, food for vulnerable young families," Mayhew said.

The new rule won't be implemented until October, but women's advocacy, and civil liberties, groups are already raising objections. Omai Amarasingham, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, says the Fourth Amendment requires that probable cause exist in order for the government to conduct a drug test. She says it doesn't matter if someone has been previously convicted or not.

Mayhew says she's confident the state's drug-testing rule would withstand a constitutional challenge. "I'm very concerned and appalled by the stance of the Civil Liberties Union," Mayhew said. "While the governor is committed to protecting vulnerable young families and young children, they seem to be too focused on this extreme position that ignores that the intent behind this is focused entirely on individuals who are convicted drug felons."

"Drug testing is expensive," said Pat Kimball. "Who will determine what kind of test? Who will read the results? Who will observe the testing and what is the administrative burden of this test?"

Kimball, president of the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Providers, shared her concerns about the proposed rule during the DHHS hearing. She said there are far too many unanswered questions about the proposed plan - such as how those TANF recipients living in some of the state's far-flung areas are supposed to enroll in substance abuse programs that could be dozens of miles away.

Her concerns were shared by Danna Hayes of the Maine Women's Lobby, who says studies show that women often turn to drug abuse after suffering trauma in their lives.

"Over 70 percent of women in substance abuse treatment programs had been victims of violence at some point in their lives," Hayes said. "Studies have directly linked the number of women's violence experiences to the severity of her drug or alcohol problem."

The ALCU chapter in Florida successfully challenged a blanket drug testing program in that state. Here in Maine, ACLU leaders say they want to see what the final rule looks like before they take a position on a constitutional challenge.