(Source: Omaha Reader) If you receive direct cash or medical benefits from the state, you shouldn’t be using illegal drugs. The premise seems simple enough, but a bill in the Nebraska Legislature seeking to enforce it faces a history of lawsuits and failed attempts in other states. The bill is also raising concerns for medical marijuana patients and advocates, who say their form of self-medication is cheaper and more effective than prescription drugs.
Introduced by Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, the bill seeks mandatory drug tests for welfare recipients. If individuals were caught using illegal substances, they would be ineligible for welfare cash payouts, food stamps, and similar state assistance for up to one year. Janssen says drug testing would help ensure that welfare recipients are on the road to finding employment and getting off of state assistance.
“We want to offer a hand up, not a handout,” Janssen said. “Nebraska taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars should be used to help people in need, but we need to make sure they are able to get a job as soon as possible. This bill helps to ensure that.”
Ten years ago, Beth (who asked to remain anonymous) fell from a 100-foot cliff. She suffered a severe spinal injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She said she uses marijuana to control muscle spasms that tend to occur in those who suffer from partial paralysis. She said the spasms were bad enough to throw her from a chair. Beth said she has tried dozens of pharmaceuticals, but most left her feeling sick and none were as effective as marijuana.
Beth also receives food stamps and state living assistance, making Janssen’s bill particularly worrisome for her.
“I don’t want to do anything illegal, but so far (marijuana) is the only thing that seems to work for me,” she said. “If I were caught with pot, I would lose both my apartment and my state assistance. In my situation, that would be basically the same as killing me.”
Janssen said consumption of illegal substances by state aid recipients is a waste of taxpayer dollars and would bar them from employment if they were caught. Many Omaha businesses require new employees to pass a drug-screening test before their employment is official.
Janssen acknowledged some significant challenges with bill. The program would be costly; the state would likely have to pay for a pilot program before the bill took effect. This would be a tough sell following the emergency budget-cutting session in November. With anticipated pay and hiring freezes for state employees this year, senators will likely steer clear of many high-ticket items.
There may also be significant legal hurdles. Similar programs have been tried in other states, only to be struck down by the courts. In 2003, the ACLU sued and successfully halted random drug testing of welfare recipients in Michigan. Of the 268 people who were successfully tested in Michigan prior to the programs demise, just 21 were found to have consumed anything illegal; and of those 21, 18 were found to have consumed only marijuana.
While still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic by the U.S. government, several states have passed medical marijuana laws. Colorado has allowed medical marijuana since 2000 and the Iowa Board of Pharmacy recently held a statewide fact finding tour on the pros and cons of allowing its regulated use.
While legalizing the use of marijuana appears to have little legislative support, some Nebraskans are concerned that LB 940 would jeopardize the welfare of individuals who consume marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Attorney Ralph Smith, of Louisville, Neb., represents individuals caught using marijuana, but who claim to be using it for medical reasons. He told The Reader the bill was “outrageous and unfair to some of our citizens who desperately need cannabis, as well as those who are unaware of its potential benefits.”
Janssen said anything prescribed for an individual would not count against them if discovered in a drug test.
(Note: the only drugs that can be prescribed for an individual in Nebraska are pharmaceuticals. As California comes closer to legalization, the conservative states are sticking it to the cannabis users. In addition to introducing this bill, Janssen recently tripled the fine for possession of small amounts of cannabis from $100 to $300.)