SALT LAKE CITY -- Since Utah's new law requiring drug screening for welfare applicants went into effect last August, the state has spent more than $26,000 looking for drug users among 4,400 applicants.
Of those applicants, about 400 were identified after taking a written test as having a "reasonable likelihood" that they were using drugs.
Drug tests performed on those 400 people found only nine who tested positive, according to data from the Department of Workforce Services, which administers the benefits and tests.
The ACLU and a longtime welfare advocate in Utah that opposed the policy say the law unfairly stigmatizes poor people and the money could be better spent elsewhere.
The numbers, which represent data from August 2012 through June 2013, were first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday.
Utah is one of at least eight states that have passed legislation requiring testing or screening for public assistance applicants, and similar laws have been proposed in at least 29 states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A federal judge instituted a temporary ban on Florida's law, which requires welfare recipients to pass a drug test. A federal appeals court upheld the ban in February, and Gov. Rick Scott has said he's appealing the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, but so far the state has not yet filed its appeal. For the four-month period the law was in effect, 108 people out of more than 4,000 tested positive for drugs, according to data from Florida welfare officials.
Michigan ran a random drug-testing program for welfare recipients in 1999, but it was stopped after five weeks by a judge. After four years of court wrangling, a federal appeals court ruled it was unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed legal challenges against similar laws in other states but did not oppose Utah's law in court.
Marina Lowe with the ACLU of Utah said that's because Utah's law does not present a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits an unreasonable search and seizure.
Utah's law doesn't drug test all applicants or random applicants. All applicants must take a written questionnaire designed to screen for substance abuse. Drugs tests are then performed on those rated as having a high probability that they're using drugs.
Despite not filing a legal challenge, the ACLU still opposes Utah's law.
"It isn't a good return on investment for our state, in terms of the money that we're spending," Lowe said. "But it also is just, as a policy matter, very troubling that we would consider that people with no means are more likely to be using drugs."
Lowe said Utah's law is better than proposals or laws in other states because it doesn't disqualify those who test positive for drugs from receiving benefits.
Utah's law, which applies to applicants of the welfare program known as the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, instead requires those who test positive to enter treatment for substance abuse.
Rep. Brad Wilson, a Kaysville Republican who sponsored Utah's law, said the numbers reported Thursday were not what he expected.
"That data's a little inconsistent with the data that we used in the decision to move forward with this, in terms of what we expected the ratios to be," he said.
Wilson said Thursday that until he had a chance to examine the data and discuss the methodology with the Workforce Services Department, he couldn't say what the numbers might imply or whether the state needs to change tactics.
The goal of Utah's law is to identify people in the welfare program who need help to get off any kind of addictive substances, become self-dependent and return to work, Wilson said.
"That's why when we crated the piece of legislation, we didn't tell people that tested positive they couldn't have benefits," he said.
Wilson said he plans to wait until 12 months of data have been collected before examining whether any changes need to be made.
Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger and a longtime welfare-reform advocate, said her organization had requested the data about the initial 11 months of the program.
Cornia said the numbers confirmed her expectation that the tests would net only a small group of people, but she was a little surprised that the numbers were as low as they were.
"It's hard to justify spending the kind of money that the department is being required to spend to capture so few people who may be using an illegal substance," she said. "There are better ways to spend that money."
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this report.
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