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Madawaska Considering Drug Testing General Assistance Recipients

Two Maine advocacy organizations are urging the town of Madawaska to reject a proposal to test General Assistance recipients for drugs.

Maine Equal Justice Partners and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine say the proposal is unconstitutional. But it’s a matter of fairness, says Madawaska town manager Ryan Pelletier, because some General Assistance recipients already undergo random drug testing.

Madawaska has a workfare program, where those who qualify for General Assistance and are able to work do so, for the town.

“By doing that, those individuals technically become employees of the municipality and are subjected to random drug testing like any other town employee would be,” Pelletier says.

But some General Assistance recipients are disabled and aren’t able to participate in Madawaska’s workfare program, so they don’t undergo random drug testing. And that doesn’t sit right with Pelletier.

“It just doesn’t seem fair that a person who can work, and is down on their luck, and having hard times, and qualifies for General Assistance, and participates in a workfare program with us potentially has to be drug tested,” he says.

That’s why Pelletier proposed to the Board of Selectmen last month to consider requiring random drug testing for all General Assistance recipients. But while Pelletier sees the proposal as a way to treat all recipients equally, Jack Comart of Maine Equal Justice Partners sees it another way.

“We don’t drug test people who apply for the deduction for home interest mortgage or any other thing like that,” he says. “There’s no justification for testing poor people who seek assistance from the government.”

The proposal, says Comart, is unconstitutional. He points to court cases in other states that back that claim.

“For example, when Florida wanted to drug test people for public assistance benefits, it was found to be unconstitutional. And that was a decision from just a couple years ago,” he says.

Comart says random drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment — the protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine agrees. Both organizations have sent letters to Pelletier urging him to abandon the idea.

And the ACLU’s Jamesa Drake says the town’s current policy to randomly drug test its employees is unconstitutional as well.

“The United States Supreme Court has held that in a very narrow band of occupations — occupations that have to do with the care of children, or occupations that have to do with safety, but narrowly defined, like railroad employees — can be subjected to random drug testing. Beyond that, the court has consistently held that random drug testing is inappropriate,” she says.

Pelletier says the proposal is just something the town is exploring. He says he may not make a formal recommendation until the Board of Selectmen meets in August.