Ohio’s latest proposal to drug test those who seek certain types of public assistance is an improvement over past bills, but should still get a close look by lawmakers.
Two Republicans, Rep. Tim Schaffer, Lancaster, and Rep. Ron Maag, Lebanon, plan to introduce a bill that would establish a two-year pilot program to drug test welfare applicants in three counties.
Under the proposal, adult applicants for cash assistance in the Ohio Works First program would have to undergo a substance abuse screening test or questionnaire. If the screening shows suspected drug use, the applicant would take a urine test.
While applicants who test positive would not be allowed to receive public benefits for six months or until a negative test, benefits still could be awarded to their spouse or children through a “protective payee,” a guardian, church or other third party.
Those who fail a test would be steered toward treatment. Medicaid would cover treatment costs for those eligible, and for others, the state would provide up to $100,000.
Schaffer and Maag say the idea behind the bill is to break the cycle of drug addiction and poverty while making sure families are being taken care of. Extending benefits to family members of drug users and offering treatment weren’t provided under previous bills.
When it takes up the bill, the Legislature should look for best practices in states which already test the poor.
Some states that do have reported that very few drug users are identified through testing and some have seen welfare program savings negated by drug test and treatment costs. Under Ohio’s proposal, the state would pay for all negative drug tests.
Drug testing shouldn’t be seen as a money saver, however. The financial benefit, if any, to taxpayers, would come if a person through treatment is able to become employed and more self-sufficient.
Some states with drug testing have seen applications for assistance decrease, perhaps because drug users want to avoid testing. But that can have a negative impact if a drug user’s dependents fall through the cracks.
Drug testing remains controversial, but it’s a worthwhile debate to have in Ohio. Opponents of drug testing say the poor shouldn’t be singled out, yet testing is commonly used to screen job applicants in the private sector. Professional athletes are tested.
Polls show support for testing the poor growing even though the jury is still out if such laws work. Many would agree that those who abuse drugs shouldn’t be granted public assistance which can directly or indirectly allow them to acquire more drugs.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states have passed drug-testing laws for applicants for or recipients of public assistance. Similar proposals have been introduced in 18 other states.
A pilot program may be the best approach for Ohio to take. Michigan passed a similar bill late last year and will test welfare recipients for one year in three counties beginning in October.
If Ohio’s bill is approved, lawmakers should have enough data after its pilot to determine whether drug testing should be expanded to other counties, reworked or abandoned.

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