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Maine to Unveil Drug Testing Program for Welfare Recipients

AUGUSTA, Maine - It's been three years in the making, but the state Department of Health and Human Services may finally be close to launching a controversial drug testing program for convicted drug felons who apply for certain welfare benefits.

For years, Gov. Paul LePage has chaffed at the idea that drug abusers should somehow be among the first in line when it comes to receiving state benefits. Now, three years after it was approved by the Maine Legislature, the state Department of Health and Human Services is ready to issue a rule requiring convicted drug felons seeking cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program - also known as TANF -- to submit to drug testing.

"We really question whether or not this is a wise investment of dollars," say Robin Merrill, the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for low-income Mainers.

Merrill says punishment is the wrong approach. "This will come at a cost, and we really think the focus should be on rehabilitation and not punishing families with children."

Under the policy, TANF applicants would have to disclose any drug convictions within the past 20 years that could be classified as a Class A, B, or C crime under Maine's criminal code. A conviction would likely trigger a drug test, and failure to disclose a past conviction would result in a denial of benefits.

Those who test positive would be afforded an opportunity to take a second test for verification purposes. An applicant who fails the test could still receive benefits if he or she agrees to take part in a state-approved substance abuse program.

While some states, including Florida, have run into constitutional challenges for trying to broadly implement drug testing for welfare recipients, state prosecutors say they're confident that Maine's more focused approach will pass legal muster.

Merrill says it's important for the department to place its focus on those who are most likely to be engaging in illegal drug activity. "We agree that there needs to be some sort of reasonable suspicion in order to justify subjecting somebody to a warrantless drug test," Merrill says.

To that end, the Maine Attorney General's Office is now recommending several changes to the draft rule that would anticipate a constitutional challenge based on the prohibition of unreasonable searches or seizures.

Chief among those suggestions is the implementation of a written test used by other states - a 15-minute questionnaire that state Assistant Attorney General Tom Quinn says is effective, and easy to administer.  Quinn also wants the state to consider a change that would require applicants to disclose only convictions going back five to 10 years, rather than 20 years.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew agrees with both revisions.

"So we have worked collaboratively with the Attorney General's Office," Mayhew says. "They have made some suggestions around a screening tool that we will be including. There were also recommendations around the look-back period, so we've made some modifications to that as well, and we are pleased that this is now moving forward."

Neither of the changes, however, provide any additional degree of comfort for Allison Beyea, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, who continues to view the entire policy as demeaning to those affected by it.

"There is no evidence that public assistance recipients are any more likely to abuse illegal drugs than anyone else," Beyea says, "so, really, what we're just seeing is this false and unfair stereotype that the poorest among us here in Maine are using drugs at a higher rate, and that they somehow have to prove their innocence in order to get help to get food and shelter. And that's just not the kind of place we want to live in."

Commissioner Mayhew signed off on the final rule today. She said it will be sent to Attorney General Janet Mills, who must approve the rule within the next 30 days.