US Set to Allow Drug Testing for Unemployment Benefits

The measure has passed both houses of Congress, and is awaiting President Donald Trump's signature

The measure has passed both houses of Congress, and is awaiting President Donald Trump's signature (Source: Wikimedia).

The US is set to remove restrictions on state-mandated drug testing for people who seek unemployment benefits, despite evidence suggesting this may worsen the country’s opioid epidemic.

On March 14, the US Senate voted in favour of House Joint Resolution 42, following the House of Representatives’ approval of the measure in February. The resolution nullifies a regulation introduced by President Obama’s administration under which states are barred from mandating drug testing for federal unemployment benefits, except in cases where applicants seek jobs in fields where random drug testing is regularly conducted.

The measure now awaits President Trump’s signature.

According to the National Employment Law Project, many Republican Congressmen view drug testing for benefits as a cost containment mechanism; they hope to cut spending by disqualifying individuals who fail drug tests, or even by discouraging them from applying in the first place.

For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, was particularly vocal on this matter, proposing drug tests for multiple welfare programmes, including food stamps and unemployment benefits. 

However, the measure has also faced criticism.

Oregon Senator and Democrat, Ron Wyden, warned that the measure condemns unemployed people as “guilty of drug use until proven innocent”.

The National Employment Law Project, an advocacy organisation for employment rights, described the policy as a “not-so-subtle attack on the character of unemployed Americans”.

The new measure may also have a more dire consequence; it is set to deny critical resources to people who use drugs at the height of an opioid death epidemic.

Opioid overdose deaths have reached a record high in the US, with at least 33,000 related deaths in 2015, and recent research suggests that a correlation exists between unemployment and problematic opioid use.

A February 2017 study by the US’ National Bureau of Economic Research identified that, with each percentage-point increase in county unemployment, the opioid death rate per 100,000 rose by 0.19.

Indeed, many of the states hardest hit by the opioid death epidemic are also suffering from significant unemployment.

West Virginia topped the list of states by drug overdose fatality rate in 2015, the latest year for which data is available, when death rates reached 41.5 per 100,000. As of January 2017, the state’s unemployment rate (5.6 per cent) continues to hover above the national rate (4.8 per cent).

A 2011 review article from the journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews on studies published between 1990 and 2010 describes a similar phenomenon on the individual level, naming unemployment as a risk factor for problematic substance use. 

Neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart has his own thoughts on the connection between drug use and financial stability.

“If you’re living in a poor neighbourhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said, in a 2013 New York Times interview.

Under the new measure, communities with high rates of overdose and unemployment are about to face a new barrier to much-needed resources.

This policy clashes with previous US federal initiatives designed to target the opioid death epidemic, most recently the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which aimed to expand treatment options and prevention efforts.

“It’s shameful that Congress would demonise people who use drugs, especially when there has been so much recent rhetoric about helping people who struggle with opioid and other forms of addiction,” Grant Smith of the Drug Policy Alliance commented in February.

A policy that further penalises people who use drugs is counterproductive to the fight to end the national opioid epidemic. By relaxing the limitations on drug testing, House Joint Resolution 42 will be creating yet another obstacle for those stuck in the cycle of problematic substance use and poverty.