CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A speech by a lawmaker whose family recently was devastated by the effects of prescription drug abuse has jumpstarted discussions of a bill meant to allow drug testing of welfare recipients.
Supporters say the legislation would be an effective way to funnel addicts into treatment programs.
Others say the bill is unconstitutional, and would only overburden the state's already sparse substance abuse treatment facilities.
Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, rose near the end of Wednesday's floor session to speak briefly about his wife's nephew, who was killed in the early morning hours of March 8.
Green, who declined to give the 35-year-old victim's name, said the man had been addicted to prescription painkillers for about a decade and was out looking for a fix when he was killed.
He was struck and killed by a coal truck while walking down the centerline of a rural Wyoming County road.
"He was a bright, articulate young person. He was an all-state athlete, just an all around great guy. The sky was the limit in front of him," Green said.
The man first took prescription drugs following an injury, Green said, and was never able to shake the habit. He lived with his grandmother and received public assistance.
"For the last eight years, that public assistance fed his drug problem. He did absolutely nothing productive, nothing constructive except purchase illegal drugs," Green said. "He battled that demon as his family had to sit and watch."
He urged fellow senators to advance Senate Bill 417, which would require random drug testing of individuals receiving unemployment compensation or through the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
If a welfare recipient fails that drug test, they would be required to enter a drug treatment program and be re-tested within 30 to 60 days of the original test. Individuals would lose their public assistance benefits for up to a year if that second drug test also was positive.
Green said he has received hundreds of emails supporting the measure, and not one in opposition to it. He said seven states already have some form of welfare drug testing measure.
One of those laws, passed by the state of Florida, is currently being challenged in a federal court. But Green said "that should not prohibit us here in West Virginia from having that discussion."
Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, is the lead sponsor of the bill. He said he the legislation is not intended to take away government assistance from those who need it, but attempt to push drug addicts into treatment programs.
"I'm all about helping people. We're not taking away their money," he said.
He said unlike other states' legislation, West Virginia's bill does not require drug testing of every welfare or unemployment recipient but instead creates a random screening program.
"We think that addresses the constitutionality of it. Let's try it and see," he said.
Carmichael is not hopeful for the bill's chances, however. Senate President Jeff Kessler referred the legislation to three committees when it was introduced early last month, sending it to Health and Human Resources, then Judiciary before reaching the Senate Finance Committee.
Many bills only receive two committee references, while some bills only receive one. Carmichael said the move is intended to kill his legislation.
Speaking after the floor session on Wednesday, Kessler was not bashful in expressing his distaste for the bill.
In addition to requiring drug testing for unemployment and TANF recipients, Carmichael's legislation also requires state lawmakers submit to random drug testing before they can receive a paycheck.
Carmichael said that shows members of the public legislators are "leading by example." Kessler said the bill just tells the public their elected officials suffer from drug addictions.