Opinion
8:50 am
Fri October 18, 2013

Bills attack the poor for drug use, yet top lawmakers have substance abuse issues of their own

Lessenberry commentary for 10/18/13

The Michigan Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved a bill to cut off unemployment benefits for anyone who fails or refuses a drug test. The House passed a slightly different version earlier, and within a few days the governor will be signing this into law.

This will make a lot of lawmakers, most of them Republicans, feel very righteous. They will have cut off funds to a group of desperate and poor people who apparently have substance abuse problems. I wonder what these folks will do then?

Perhaps they will clean up their act and somehow enroll in the University of Michigan and become software engineers. Then again, they could turn to violent crime to support their habits. I wonder which choice is more likely.

Back in the 19th century, some believed in Social Darwinism -- that successful people were naturally superior, and we’d best be served by allowing the weak to die off. Others thought those who screwed up were wicked and deserved to be punished.

When I was in college, we were taught that both concepts were completely discredited, and that nobody believed them anymore. Not true.

Apparently a lot of people get a thrill out of whacking the poor, and there is nothing as virtuous as striking a blow against drugs. Now I am a battered old cynic, but the level of hypocrisy here is a bit too much, even for me.

Consider that two recent Speakers of the Michigan House, one a Republican, one a Democrat, have openly admitted to severe alcohol abuse problems.

One was has been arrested more than once.  Has anyone suggested taking their pensions away? Of course not.

In case anyone wonders, I despise drugs. I can’t stand being fuzzy-headed. Once, after oral surgery, I threw away the Vicodin they gave me and did power housework to take my mind off the pain. I have real reservations about legalizing marijuana, because I don’t want any more high drivers on the road.

Still, making it harder for people who are poor and desperate solves nothing. This bill is not even equitable. It cuts off jobless benefits for people who fail pre-employment drug tests, but it doesn’t require businesses to report the results. I smell the potential for abuse.

I think it is also important to note that this isn’t about welfare, but unemployment benefits, something people have legitimately earned. I don’t think we have the right to deny them.

State Senator Coleman Young II, one of a handful of lawmakers who opposed this bill, accurately told his colleagues, “If you were really interested in people gaining employment … you would offer them drug treatment so they could live a sober life.”  He added, “This isn’t about stewardship, it’s about demonizing a group and starting a witch hunt to score political points.”

Governor Snyder ought to veto this bill, but of course he won’t. When this is done, the senators are expected to take up another bill that would allow welfare recipients to be forced to undergo drug testing if anybody even suspected they might be using.

I’m sure glad to know that our lawmakers are spending their time on this instead of doing something about fixing the roads.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.