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North Carolina is the latest state to find welfare recipients rarely use illegal drugs

A urine sample.
A urine sample.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Results of newly mandatory drug tests for some North Carolina welfare recipients were reported this month, proving the whole process was much ado about nothing.

The law, which requires North Carolinians who receive public aid to be screened and possibly tested for drugs, went into effect last August. Applicants are automatically referred for drug testing if they have been convicted of a felony within three years of applying to the program.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services told Vox that they screened 7,600 applicants to the Work First Program between August 3 and December 31, 2015. Among them, 150 were referred for drug testing and 21 tested positive — that's "0.3 percent of the approximate 7,600 applicants and recipients screened for drug abuse," the DHHS confirmed to Vox via email on Tuesday (though that number is not necessarily reflective of the total aid population).

State lawmakers assumed welfare recipients inherently engage in criminal activity, and therefore use public assistance to pay for drugs. The results suggest these ideas have little (if any) statistical grounds, and that there is no reason to isolate welfare recipients in particular.

This rate is substantially lower than both the state and national rate of illicit drug use.

The most recently collected data shows the rate of illegal drug use in North Carolina is 8 percent. The national rate of illegal drug use is 9.4 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Out of the aforementioned group of 150, WRAL, a TV news station from Raleigh, North Carolina, reported approximately 70 people who were asked to get a drug test failed to show up for testing (though the department did not verify this figure to Vox). But even if each of those 70 people tested positive for drug use, the combined 91 people would still mean only 1 percent of applicants had used illegal drugs.

North Carolina's law went into effect last August, after a contentious back and forth between Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-majority Senate in 2013.

The bill passed through the House and the Senate 35-15, but McCrory vetoed the bill, citing the possibility of government overreach.

"This is not a smart way to combat drug use," he said in a statement. "Similar efforts in other states have proved to be expensive for taxpayers and did little to actually help fight drug addiction. It makes no sense to repeat those mistakes in North Carolina."

Two days later, the Senate voted to override the governor’s veto with no objections.

Now North Carolina is one of 13 states with laws that require drug tests for those who receive public assistance benefits. Some of these states have witnessed similar outcomes.

Tennessee’s Department of Human Services recently released information finding only 65 of the 39,121 people who have been screened for the state's Families First assistance program have tested positive for illegal drug use since July 1, 2014. In Arizona, the result was one person out of 87,000 total recipients. In Utah, it was 12 out of 47,000 screened.

Back in North Carolina, reviews of the results have been mixed.

Division of Social Services Director Wayne Black noticed that drug testing has not had a negative impact and that it helps staff provide referrals for treatment for those who need it.

"It’s an important program for us, most importantly because we’re referring these individuals for treatment, and that’s when we’ll really determine the success of this program," Black said to WRAL.

Applicants still receive payments from Work First if they refuse to take a drug test or if their drug test is positive. The difference is that the amount provided for the household would be reduced under these circumstances.

State Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat, saw the results as support that drug testing was a waste of money.

"They found very few applicants," she said, adding that applicants are offered drug treatment resources anyway. "So, we just wasted state dollars, in terms of that piece of legislation and in terms of the time and staff all across the state."

So far, 89 drug tests have been administered at $55 each. The state has contracted Oregon-based Fortes Laboratories to examine the samples. The state has paid $4,895 for the program.