Some Oklahomans seeking state-funded financial assistance may have at least one more hoop to jump through.

With Gov. Mary Fallin’s signing of House Bill 2388, the Sooner State became one of at least 28 states this year alone to approve or consider legislation mandating drug testing as a requirement for receiving funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The law requires that all adult applicants for state financial assistance undergo screening for illegal usage of controlled substances.

“This issue received national attention over the last couple of years,” says State Sen. David Holt (R-Oklahoma City), HB 2388 co-author.

The controversial measure has been viewed by some as a common-sense approach to guaranteeing that public funds are not used to help an addict finance a drug habit. However, the bill’s detractors see it as an unnecessary added stigma on a sector of society that some say has been stigmatized enough.

“I think laws such as this are a result of false stereotypes across the board,” says Ryan Kiesel, executive director of ACLU Oklahoma.

Despite such legislation enjoying increasing nationwide momentum, Kiesel sees the motivation to implement such laws as nothing more than a manufactured problem, pointing to Florida as an example. “The actual percentage of the population (seeking assistance) that tested positive was lower than the assumed rate in the public at large,” he says. 

HB 2388 mandates that drug screening will happen at the time of application. Additional screening methods, including clinical interviews, may also be used to establish what the bill calls a “reasonable expectation of certainty.” A refusal to test will result in a denial of TANF benefits. “That is a dramatic change in Oklahoma policy,” says Holt.

A positive test, however, does not permanently disqualify an applicant from receiving TANF benefits. Applicants testing positive for illegal drugs will be given a list of substance abuse treatment programs, and may be approved for TANF benefits one year after initial denial. The one-year waiting period may be reduced to six months for applicants who successfully complete an approved treatment program. A second positive test translates to a denial of benefits for three years. Holt believes the measure can serve as motivation for drug users to reconsider their habits. “There’s more of an incentive to get clean when you’re not going to get cash benefits.”

Holt says the final bill was drastically changed from its early versions. “It ended up we did not require chemical tests of all applicants,” he explains.

The final version does not require drug testing for cases in which minor children will be the sole benefit recipients, or for parents under age 18.

A particularly controversial provision in the legislation’s early drafts requiring applicants to pay out-of-pocket for the testing was ultimately omitted from the bill’s final version. “The reason that the original bill had it in there was because it was borrowed from other states,” Holt says, adding that testing will be financed at no new cost to taxpayers.

While similar measures in other states have been met with legal challenges, Kiesel says his organization is not pursuing measures to block HB 2388’s implementation. “We’re going to keep a close eye on the way it’s administered.” He notes that ACLU Oklahoma will pay special attention regarding the measure’s application in relation to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. 

Kiesel adds that ACLU Oklahoma’s non-challenge doesn’t necessarily mean the organization is content with the bill. “What was ultimately passed was disappointing from the standpoint that (the legislature) felt (it) had to pass legislation for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

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