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Drug testing: Florida aims to be first to test public workers

New Florida drug-testing law allows agency heads to randomly test public workers for illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and alcohol. But it exempts the governor and state legislators.

By Staff writer / March 19, 2012

Investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement gathered evidence at an alleged meth lab in Middleburg, Fla., in February. A new Florida law calls for state workers themselves to undergo random testing for drug use.

Bruce Lipsky/Florida Times-Union/AP

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Atlanta

Florida, which already tests welfare recipients for drug and alcohol abuse, is poised to extend drug testing to state public employees – a first-in-the-nation move that lawmakers from other states may copy, even as labor unions, civil libertarians, and small-government advocates rail against it.

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Under the law, which cleared the Legislature March 9, agency heads are allowed (but not required) to randomly test up to 10 percent of their workforce for illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and alcohol, every three months. Elected officials are exempt.

The Republican-backed measure is intended, supporters say, to be a net benefit in that it gives workers who have drug problems a way to get clean, while at the same time protecting the broader citizenry from impaired public servants.

State workers in Florida are not known to have greater substance abuse problems than workers elsewhere. Rather, the new drug-testing law seems to be part of a trend to raise accountability for a wide range of people who are receiving taxpayer dollars – be they public employees, welfare recipients, or jobless people collecting unemployment benefits.

Drug testing is a winning political issue, even if some measures may be straining the US Constitution's protection against "unreasonable search and seizure," analysts say.

"People are always in favor of locking up miscreants, and, despite our constitutional legal traditions, there's always a lot to be reaped from the argument that if you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about," says Colin Gordon, a labor historian at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "But it's always surprising to me," he adds, "how little weight the civil liberties argument has – an implication that has become exaggerated in the war-on-terror era, and which says we can and should suspend liberties for people who don't deserve them."

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a tea party favorite, is among Republican officials pushing for mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients. Indeed, while Florida is the only state to require drug tests for people on welfare, such legislation has been introduced in more than half the states. A February Quinnipiac Poll of Virginia voters, for example, showed such legislation has public support, with 3 in 4 respondents favoring drug tests for people who receive cash assistance from the state.

No state yet requires those collecting unemployment to undergo drug testing, but Arizona, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Utah are among those considering it. The US Department of Labor, as instructed by Congress in December, now allows states to require drugs tests for unemployment recipients whose job search is confined to industries that already require drug testing, such as aviation.

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