Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Drug Testing Welfare Recipients

There are narrow-minded sorts who think that the government should require recipients of government assistance to undergo drug testing as a condition of receiving that money.  The Detroit Free Press has come out against such an unfair scheme--after all, the last time some Michigan counties tried this, "screening for PCP, marijuana, cocaine, opiates and amphetamines. Only about one in 10 of the applicants tested positive."  The Shekel points out:
If the results are possible to extrapolate to the welfare recipient population as a whole, then 1 in 10 of them are using government funds for illegal purposes. That IS a problem.
Never-mind that drug use is likely one of the reasons the person may be on government assistance in the first place, as a drug habit that interferes with their ability to work and have a productive life.
This is a rather core problem, isn't it?  I have a sister-in-law who spent many years, off and on, collecting AFDC in the 1980s and 1990s, because her husband never let a job get in the way of his alcohol, marijuana, and speed problem.  I asked her how common this problem was among other AFDC recipients she knew in the Sacramento area.  She told me that did not know any families where this was not the core reason for being on AFDC: usually fathers, but sometimes mothers, for whom drug dependency took precedence over work.

One of the reasons that I have become increasingly concerned about the social costs of decriminalization of all drugs is that there are a lot of people for whom substance abuse (including legal drugs, such as alcohol), are at the core of many other destructive behaviors.  Adding more intoxicants to the list of legal drugs likely will reduce crime associated with prohibition, but lower purchase prices, and increase the number of those who are dependent.  Whether decriminalization is a net gain or not for a society is hard to tell in advance, because you cannot easily calculate what is going to happen:

1. How much will drug prices drop?

2. How many existing addicts will increase consumption because of lower prices?

3. How many new addicts will be created because lower prices encourage experimentation?


  1. It's indeed a hard problem, or putting on my reductionist hat, decriminalization would likely substantially increase my needing to use lethal force to defend myself.

    BUT I don't see any way for our current drug control regime (particularly entrenched since it employees so many people; as Arrest-Proof Yourself points out as part of supporting its most interesting thesis, the "police-judicial complex" (as I've taken to calling it) depends on running a steady of the "clueless" through it while the substantial drop in violent crime over the last few decades hasn't resulted in layoffs at courthouses or police stations) ... ahem:

    I don't see any way for our current drug control regime and our system of ordered liberty to co-exist in the long term. If using binary reasoning, we're going to have to give up one or the other.

    And meanwhile, anytime you read Balko's columns your get reminded of the very real costs to the innocent, injustices which are steadily corroding the legitimacy of our system. This was firmly brought to my attention when I recently experienced a scenario that was a variation on the gambits mentioned in Arrest Proof Yourself, when a local cop played a game of chicken with his car and my body. (The sort of thing the city's police, who I knew pretty well growing up in the '70s, never would have done back then.)

    Being a "professional" pedestrian with ... well, what I feel is the right sort of attitude, I won that contest, but it's hard not to at best suspect it was intended to generate a bogus felony arrest: target flees since Officer Friendly is apparently trying to kill him (it would have been a ~9 inch miss of my body, less of the mirror), officer shouts "Stop!" and then it's all over for my staying out of the "electronic plantation" as Arrest Proof Yourself puts it....

    To close, from reading Halbrook I now viscerally understand why our founders loathed "select militias", which are essentially what too many of our police forces have become.

  2. The problems that Balko talks about are not intrinsic to drug prohibition. Judges should issue no-knock warrants in very, very limited circumstances. To be blunt, if the quantity of drugs is small enough to flush, it isn't worth risking lives (including police lives) with no-knock warrants.

  3. Indeed, but there are a lot of problems intrinsic to drug prohibition. Off the top of my head:

    Making possession of things vs. actions illegal (too easy to frame someone or provide justification of a no-knock raid gone bad).

    Corruption of members of the government since drug dealers can pay them a lot more money.

    Not sure about "petty" and not so petty crime to get money for drugs. Decriminalization would lower their price (even after taxes, one presumes) but more addicts means more demand so it could be a wash or end up worse.

    A very big source of the "clueless" as grist for the police-judicial complex.

    A diversion from crimes with real victims (although again see above caveat).

    I'm sure we can both come up with more.

  4. Without question, prohibition creates a stack of problems. So does decriminalization. They are different problems.

    One of the reasons that most societies make attempts to regulate intoxicants is because the social costs from intoxicant abuse are widespread, and most people who someone who has been injured by it. There are better ways and worse ways to try and discourage intoxicant abuse.

    Ferocious punishments can work (as we used to use in the U.S. and Canada) as a deterrent as long as the population is prepared to support such severe punishments. A focus on treatment and education can probably work, but that requires the elites of the society to regard these as important. American elites for the most part only regard meth abuse as a problem, and generally regard alcohol and marijuana abuse as minor issues (if at all).