ANCHORAGE - If you're getting food stamps, or other public assistance from the state, you may have to first pass a drug and alcohol test.
Mat-Su Valley lawmaker Wes Keller (R-Wasilla), the author of House Bill 16, wants more strings attached for those who receive public welfare
Keller said the drug testing is necessary because there's a “statewide threat to public safety” when people use public funds to buy alcohol and drugs.
The proposed bill would authorize the division of public assistance to begin "random and suspicion-based" testing of those who receive public assistance. The testing would screen for drugs like marijuana, opiates, and methamphetamine.
According to the text of the bill, if a recipient were to test positive for the drugs—or refuse testing—the department would be able to "deny or suspend" cash assistance.
“The intent,” Keller said, “is to find the substance abuse and address the substance abuse problem with the person who's asking for public assistance.”
Keller added that the bill empowers those who work directly with recipients to make important judgment calls.
“If you're a front line social worker and you are exposed to the people who are asking for help,” he said, “it's only logical you give them some discretion.”
The bill says assistance would be "denied or suspended" if individuals don't undertake a "approved treatment program." But what those programs are, neither Keller (in an interview today), nor the bill, make clear.
Keller did highlight one provision in the bill, one that would allow children to receive benefits through a third party if their parents were denied through the drug test.
Keller said that taking away assistance from someone already in need had to potential to make things worse. And to that end, he said he wants to work on the bill's language to provide specifics for treatment options.
Until that happens, critics like the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, think the bill bashes the poor.
“That's what this bill is proposing,” said Jeffrey Mittman, the executive director of the ACLU in Alaska, “it’s essentially criminalizing individuals without any basis and saying, we are going to randomly drug test you, alcohol test you, we're going to conduct a search and seizure, based on nothing more than we want to categorize you as a group.”
Other states have attempted similar measures: in Florida, the drug tests may have cost the state more money than it saved, as only a small number of applicants were found to be abusing drugs or alcohol.
And the bill might be familiar to Alaskans: Keller introduced a similar bill in last year's legislature.
For links to legislative action on HB16, and the full text of the bill, can be found here.