BY MARINA VILLENEUVE
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Republican Gov. Paul LePage has long contended that drug-testing welfare recipients will help protect taxpayer dollars, but only a handful have submitted to tests under the current law. His administration blames Democrats for the scant results.
The state requires drug tests for certain welfare recipients with drug convictions who score high on a substance-use screening tool. Recipients who fail two drug tests are required to enroll in a treatment program to try to keep their welfare benefits.
Since 2015, only 23 people scored high enough on the screening tool to be subjected to testing, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services told The Associated Press. That’s about 0.01 percent of the total welfare recipients in Maine.
Of those, 11 Mainers lost temporary cash assistance benefits for failing to complete required drug tests, while four other individuals lost benefits after refusing screening for drugs. The department didn’t provide data on the program’s cost or on how many tested positive for drugs like marijuana in years past.
The administration say Democrats have watered-down drug screening and testing requirements for 8,000 Mainers who receive cash assistance and 180,000 individuals who receive food assistance. In 2011, Democrats and Republicans agreed to drug-test drug felons after Republicans called for random drug-testing for all welfare recipients.
“Today with the limitation that was put forward and passed by the Legislature, largely driven by Democrats in the Legislature, we could only drug test for convicted drug felons,” DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said. “Frankly, the largest result is that individuals are refusing to show up for drug tests.”
This year, Republicans are sponsoring legislation that would require cash assistance applicants to undergo drug screening and, if required, testing. LePage is backing another bill that he says would prohibit food stamps for repeat drug offenders and require drug treatment for first-time offenders.
Democrats are coming out against such proposals. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-6 against an initiative in LePage’s final two-year budget proposal to deny food and cash assistance benefits for individuals with felony drug convictions.
“Denying assistance needed to meet basic needs to persons without resources just released from prison, re-entering their communities, threatens their chances for a successful re-entry,” said a Thursday report by Democratic lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee. Republicans are proposing to allow cash assistance 10 years after a person completes incarceration for a drug felony conviction.
States can opt out of a 1996 federal lifetime ban on welfare for individuals with drug felonies. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Maine is one of at least four states that require those with drug felony convictions to comply with drug-testing requirements as a condition of receiving benefits.
Oamshri Amarasingham, advocacy director at the ACLU of Maine, said Republicans are improperly using a substance abuse screening tool and trying to limit welfare benefits for drug convictions at a time when Mainers voted to legalize marijuana and state lawmakers made possession of drugs like heroin a misdemeanor.
“There’s no evidence that public assistance recipients are more likely to abuse drugs than anyone else,” she said.
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