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Senate committee to mull bill on random drug testing

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ANNAPOLIS — A Senate committee will hear testimony Thursday on a bill that would require random drug testing for state residents receiving food stamps or government cash assistance.

Sen. J.B. Jennings, Baltimore County Republican, is sponsoring the bill, which he says would help reduce cases of food-stamp fraud by detecting drug users who could be using the benefits to buy drugs rather than support their families.

Many states have considered similar legislation in recent years, and Virginia is now considering a bill that would require testing for some welfare recipients.

Mr. Jennings thinks his bill, which will be heard by the Senate Finance Committee, could also help reduce drug use and provide an incentive for people to work toward financial stability.

"It's a program that is there to help those in need for the short term," he said. "The problem is that people tend to make it a lifestyle."

Under the senator's bill, childless adults who receive cash or food stamps and fail a drug test would forfeit their benefits until they complete a drug-treatment program.

At that point, a social service group or other third party would decide how to allot the benefits.

Parents who test positive would not lose their benefits. But the funds would be given to a third party that would decide how to best use them.

Arizona, Florida and Missouri passed laws last year requiring drug testing for welfare or food-stamp recipients. However, a federal court blocked Florida's law last year on grounds that it may violate constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure.

The Virginia Senate passed a bill Tuesday to require testing for some welfare recipients, sending it to the House, where a similar measure died last week.

Mr. Jennings has acknowledged the uphill battle his bill faces in the Democrat-controlled assembly, where critics have argued that drug testing intrudes upon recipients' privacy and stigmatizes the poor.

"Everybody who is in need of food stamps has not necessarily been on drugs," said Maryland Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who serves on the Finance Committee. "Some people are just going through a hard time. And to subject them to something else, I think, is probably not being supportive of their needs."

Mrs. Pugh, Baltimore Democrat, also raised questions about whether her state's bill would protect recovering drug users who receive legal methadone treatment that could result in a positive test.

Mr. Jennings said he would be open to such exceptions for people enrolled in treatment.

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