A Republican-led effort to pass state bills that require drug testing for certain public assistance programs has cost three states over $200,000 and led to the capture of just 203 violators since 2011. On average, these states are spending about $1,000 per recipient to deny a few (median) $428 in benefits.

We begin in Florida, where a law to drug test citizens applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (known as TANF or “welfare”) took effect in July of 2011. The program functioned for four months before a federal judge determined it was unconstitutional. In that time, The New York Times reported that the state caught 108 people with positive drug tests out of the 4,086 people tested, a rate of 2.6 percent. Florida spent $118,140 on reimbursing the test cost for the people who passed, which cost $45,780 more than the money Florida saved not providing TANF funds to those 108 people who failed.

The reason Florida’s law was unconstitutional is because it required testing of all applicants for TANF, and being poor is not a sufficient reason to violate a person’s 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.  

The next few states, including Utah and Oklahoma, passed laws that required poor people to submit to a written test designed to indicate potential drug use. Failing that screening would then provide the probable cause those states needed to require a drug test without violating the Constitution (see: Bending the Constitution for Drug Testing). Now the results are coming in from those states and they tell the same tale of wasted taxpayer money. In Utah, Deseret News reports that the state spent almost $6,000 on the written tests and over $20,000 on the subsequent drug tests: $26,000 total only to catch 12 people who tested positive. In Oklahoma, The Oklahoman reports written tests cost $37,800, follow-up screenings cost $34,770 and the drug tests cost $10,203: over $82,000 total, which caught 83 people.

Defenders of these drug tests for welfare like Oklahoma State Senator David Holt refuse to acknowledge that these programs are costing more money than they save in withheld benefits. 

“You never know how many people just don't apply because they know they're going to be tested,” he said. But in Florida, we do know. In the four months of its drug-testing program, the number of people applying to TANF remained steady. HIGH TIMES called the TANF programs in Utah and Oklahoma, but 2013 application data is not available yet.  When it is, we will know whether drug testing had any effect on preventing people from applying for TANF.