Drug Tests: Weapons Against the Marginalized

Last week, Pennsylvania Democratic state representative Kevin Haggerty proposed that people filing Protection from Abuse orders should be drug tested if they lack “substantive” evidence of abuse.

Yes, that does mean he thinks abuse victims should be drug tested in order to obtain protection from the state. Yes, that is as heinous as it sounds.

Two things we should know about this from the outset. One, Haggerty is a democrat, suggesting dems should not sit so comfortably with the idea that they are universally the party of women’s rights. Two, as PA public radio station WHYY informed us in the most damning concluding sentences in recent memory, there was a Protection of Abuse order against Haggerty himself for domestic violence.

As you can probably guess, Haggerty’s proposal prompted instant condemnation from anti-violence advocates, and for good reason. First, of course, whether or not someone does drugs has no bearing on whether they were abused. Second, whether or not someone does drugs has no bearing on whether they deserve protection and support when abused (everyone does!). Finally, just because an inquiry doesn’t find “substantive” evidence of abuse doesn’t mean that abuse didn’t occur or that victims are lying. There are a million reasons why the results of an inquiry may be inconclusive and, absent proof of an intentional and malignant false accusation (something that is exceedingly rare), we can’t say that a victim was lying.

As jaw-droppingly absurd as Haggerty’s suggestion is, it’s far from outlandish in a political landscape where drug tests have long been wielded as a weapon to prevent vulnerable people from accessing services. This is even more relevant now, with Trump’s government engaged in a full-scale attempt to unwind the social safety net.

Last year, Trump signed a bill reversing an Obama-era order that had limited the circumstances under which someone applying for unemployment benefits could be drug tested. The Administration is now threatening to impose drug testing for SNAP applicants. And now the Administration has just announced its plans to deny citizenship applications to any immigrant who has used a sweeping range of public programs, including Obamacare.

Drug testing serves as a tool to shame people who enroll in federal programs and more broadly, to stigmatize poverty. It’s classist and racist, criminalizing poor people and people of color for conduct that the wealthy regularly engage in without consequence. As the truism goes, if federal aid recipients are going to be drug tested, that should include homeowners receiving tax credits, corporates taking subsidies, and bankers benefitting from bailouts.

Such tests are also rooted in the false idea that people seeking federal assistance are more likely to use drugs than the general population. In states where such invasive requirements have been implemented, the opposite is actually true. But even if people seeking federal assistance were disproportionately likely to use drugs, that shouldn’t have any bearing on their right to benefit from federal programs. Drug use isn’t a moral failing. The War-on-Drugs idea that addiction is evil — rather than a medical and social problem — has been thoroughly discredited by the federal government itself.

Most of all, let’s recall that public services are for the public. Government entitlements exist because the people are entitled to them. And the public dollar is for everyone, especially the poor and marginalized. People living in poverty are entitled to government assistance. People who are struggling with addiction are entitled to government assistance. People who smoke the occasional recreational spliff are entitled to government assistance. Everyone — every single person — is entitled to the social and material support required to lead a healthy and dignified life.

Featured Image: Drug test, ProjectManhattan, Wikimedia Commons.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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