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Editorial: Welfare drug testing no cure-all

Gov. Pat McCrory is still deciding whether to sign a bill that requires some applicants to pass drug screenings in order to receive public assistance.

The first-term Republican governor has expressed concerns about the bill, and civil liberties and social justice groups have asked him to use his veto stamp. McCrory’s administration hasn’t said whether he will sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

While McCrory could still sign his name to House Bill 392, it’s encouraging that the governor has shared misgivings about a bill that Republican legislative leaders have long championed. It shows an independent streak and a willingness to question his party’s position instead of sticking to the script.

The bill would require welfare applicants to pay for drug tests if social workers suspect that they are using or are addicted to illegal drugs. If they fail the screenings, they’d be ineligible for government aid, and if they pass, state officials would reimburse them for the testing costs.

In a time of shrinking budgets, it’s entirely appropriate for public assistance programs to guard against waste, fraud and abuse. We just aren’t convinced that the General Assembly’s drug-test dragnet is the best way to accomplish that admirable aim.

H.B. 392 allows social workers to require that help-seekers submit to a drug test if they find "reasonable suspicion” of drug use or addiction. Not only is reasonable suspicion a weaker standard than probable cause — which is required in order to charge someone with a crime — but lawmakers apparently weren’t content with that legal standard’s well-established case law definition.

Bill drafters listed their own elements of reasonable suspicion, which include the existence of a conviction, arrest or outstanding warrant on drug charges from the past three years as well as a doctor’s determination that an applicant is a drug addict.

Allowing social workers to consider pending charges that have not been adjudicated deeply undermines the presumption of innocence to which all criminal defendants are entitled. An unproven accusation shouldn’t give the government grounds to treat people as if they’ve been found guilty.

We’re not even sure past convictions should be considered if the convict has completed his or her sentence and is not on active probation. Is it fair to presume continuous guilt once a person has paid the full balance of his or her debt to society?

While nearly everyone would agree that taxpayer dollars distributed through government aid programs shouldn’t be used to buy illegal drugs, we wonder whether mandatory drug screening is the first step down a slippery slope that could lead to state officials micromanaging aid recipients’ every financial move.

Should people on welfare use the money to buy alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, pornography, junk food or high-end luxury goods? Most of us would shake our heads in disapproval, but it’s virtually impossible to police every purchase.

Even if North Carolina could restrict everyone on welfare to an individual list of approved expenditures, is that approach really consistent with conservative lawmakers’ vision of small government?

We understand lawmakers’ desire to prevent public money from being spent on drugs. But, at best, it’s naive to think that turning away poor people with serious substance abuse problems will spare taxpayers much — if any — expense.

If someone who can’t qualify for welfare turns to crime to feed his or her addiction, we’ll pay for police to bring charges, we’ll pay for the stay in the county jail and we’ll also foot the bill for a court-appointed lawyer.

Substance abuse is a social problem that continues to plague North Carolina. While it may be tempting to slam the public pocketbook shut when addicts seek state aid, it’s inevitable that taxpayers will continue to shoulder some burdens of drug addiction — one way or another.
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