By Holly West

People hoping to receive benefits from North Carolina’s Work First program may soon be required to take – and pay for – a drug test before enrolling in the program.

Work First, which provides money and services to help low-income residents become employed and self-sufficient, currently uses a written screening process to check for possible drug or alcohol abuse. Now, individuals who screen as having a high indication of substance abuse may be required to take a drug test.

Senate Bill 594 would change that, requiring that every applicant or participant take a drug test, which would cost an estimated $38 each.

Those who test positive for drugs would be rejected admission to the program. Individuals who test positive for drugs would be able to reapply after one year or upon completion of a substance-abuse treatment program.

People whose tests come back negative would get reimbursed for the cost.

David Atkinson, president of the North Carolina Association of County Directors of Social Services, said his organization opposes the bill because there’s no way to fund it. He noted counties would be responsible for bearing the cost of reimbursement.

“It is a poorly conceived piece of legislation,” he said. “Right now, it’s going to fall to the counties.”

Atkinson said Work First payments are dispensed by counties using federal block grant money, which cannot be used to reimburse participants for mandatory drug tests.

The bill passed the Senate in April and has been languishing since in the House.

At a House judiciary committee meeting last week, Rep. Nathan Ramsey (R-Fairview) said it might be difficult for the low-income people the program serves to pay for a drug test in the first place.

“We’re creating a barrier for someone who’s in need of financial assistance,” he said.

A similar law in Florida that required drug testing for welfare recipients was overturned. District and federal courts said the law violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

The bill is still under consideration by a House judiciary subcommittee, but has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Cover image courtesy Life Mental Health, flickr creative commons

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...