Urine samples and bike trailers: Legislators' strange priorities

By Jayson Jacoby January 21, 2011 11:59 am

I sure wish I knew how to make those little plastic cups where you deposit your urine sample.

Although in truth the list of things I wish I knew how to make is encyclopedic.

The plastic pee cup is merely the latest addition.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, my newfound interest in this type of receptacle, and in particular its manufacture, is purely capitalistic.

What else besides the prospect of profit, after all, is likely to pique a person’s curiosity about a container which has but one purpose?

(I hope so, anyway. Although the next time I have occasion to use one I’ll look for a label and hope I don’t see the word “Tupperware.”)

It looks as though dealing in these diminutive items, in any case, could become a growth industry in Oregon.

For this possible entrepreneurial bonanza we can thank a pair of Oregon legislators.

Which isn’t altogether surprising, considering how politicians prattle on about creating jobs.

These two lawmakers have concluded that adults who receive food stamps or other sorts of taxpayer-supplied assistance ought to prove to the state, every six months, that they’re not doing drugs while on the public dole.

State Sen. Bruce Starr, a Republican from Hillsboro, is the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 538.

It would require twice-a-year drug tests for people who are getting some type of state subsidy.

Meanwhile State Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Republican from Central Point, introduced House Bill 2995. That legislation would add unemployment recipients to the roster of Oregonians who would have to pony up a “clean” urine specimen twice a year to keep the checks coming.

Although details are sketchy, it looks as though these bills, were they to become law, would boost the annual total of drug tests conducted in this state by at least a couple hundred thousand.

Which means a bunch of big orders for plastic cups to, well, fill.

Starr said his goal is to give people another incentive to stop abusing drugs.

“Because that’s not healthy for them,” he said. “It’s not healthy for their families, (and) if they have children, it’s not healthy for their children.”

He’s right, of course.

Starr’s bill has a visceral sort of appeal.

I suspect most responsible taxpayers at least dislike, and in many cases abhor, the reality that some of their dollars wind up in the pockets (and, potentially, veins) of meth addicts.

I count myself in the latter group.

Ultimately, though, I strive to judge legislation with my brain rather than my guts.

And after pondering the possible effects of Starr’s bill I concluded that the thrill I would get from deleting some dopers from the welfare rolls would not offset my sadness at the inevitable harm done to innocents — in particular children, who already suffer plenty as a result of adults’ addictions.

It doesn’t seem to me much of a bargain if kids have to miss meals or do without a warm coat in winter just so we can punish their parents.

Now I understand that those fates, and vastly worse ones besides, already afflict many of the Oregon children whose reckless and selfish parents squander public dollars to feed their illicit habits.

What I don’t believe is that tying a new string to those dollars, in the form of periodic drug tests, has much chance of persuading those parents to fix the mess they’ve made of their lives.

Addicts, frequently and with appalling apathy, relinquish lucrative jobs, expensive homes and, most troubling of all, their own kids in favor of their favorite intoxicant.

I doubt taking away their food stamps will scare such people straight.

Also, Starr’s bill would require benefit recipients, not the government, to pay for drug tests.

Yet according to a federal study, among American households that receive some type of government aid, just 9.6 percent of the residents had used illegal drugs in the past month.

Which means, in effect, that Starr’s bill would require 90 percent of the people affected to pay for a test which proves only that the test was a waste of time.

(Actually, the test plus a plastic cup and, I presume, a pair of rubber gloves.)

I’d prefer those people spend the money — some of which, of course, is supplied by taxpayers — on something more beneficial.

As for Richardson’s bill, my general opposition is tainted with a trace of ambivalence.

On the one hand, it seems to me a trifle silly to require people who are out of work to pay for a drug test (like Starr’s bill, Richardson’s leaves the testing tab for the people who get the benefit).

If Richardson’s concept is valid then he ought to write a bill requiring a percentage of the unemployment taxes that employers pay be set aside for the tests.

But on the other hand, people who are ostensibly trying to get a job will be much more likely to succeed, to their own benefit and to society’s, if they’re sober.

Besides which, Richardson’s bill, unlike Starr’s, dangles a carrot to go along with its cudgel: House Bill 2995 would allow people who fail a drug test to keep getting unemployment checks so long as they enroll in a treatment program.

Their potential effects notwithstanding, I imagine the far more imposing obstacle to either Starr’s or Richardson’s bill becoming law is a constitutional one.

Michigan is the only state that has enacted a drug-testing law similar to the two Oregon proposals, and a federal court ruled in 2003 that the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

It seems to me a near certainty that the same destiny awaits any state that tries to succeed where Michigan failed.


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Lest anyone think I confine my legislative harangues to Republicans, I’ll devote most of the remaining critical paragraphs to a Democrat, Rep. Mitch Greenlick of Northwest Portland.

Greenlick introduced a bill that would ban children younger than 6 from riding in a bicycle trailer or in a seat attached to the back of an adult’s bike.

(His legislation, by the way, spurred rather more attention, much of it from pedal-loving Portlanders whose reaction verged on hysterical, than did his GOP colleagues’ bills. I don’t know whether this difference accurately portrays Oregonians’ priorities, but I hope it doesn’t. I’d like to believe that we’re at least as indignant about welfare recipients abusing drugs as we are about preserving our right to put our kids into any potentially dangerous situation we damn well want to.)

I don’t doubt Greenlick’s sincerity.

What bothers me is that he hasn’t made a cogent case for why youngsters riding on or behind their parents’ bikes is a terrible mess which demands a legislative remedy.

(Not to mention a predictably punitive one — Greenlick’s bill includes a $90 fine for violators.)

Greenlick said he was compelled by a 2010 Oregon Health & Science University survey of bicyclists, in which 22 percent of the thousand or so riders surveyed said they had suffered some kind of injury in the past year.

Except the study doesn’t specifically address the focus of his bill, which is kids younger than 6 who are passengers.

Without such data it’s impossible to rate the merits of Greenlick’s legislation.

Fortunately he seems to have recognized that rather obvious flaw.

Greenlick said last week that he would endorse a proposal to study the issue rather than impose a ban on wee riders.

This is reasonable.

It’s not clear, though, who’s supposed to pay for the study. The state, or so I’ve heard, is not awash in liquidity these days.

The lesson in all this, it seems to me, is that lawmakers, regardless of party, would do well amidst the current fiscal crisis to resist their peculiar compulsion to engage in legislative frivolity.

The collective reputation of politicians might well be beyond repair in any case.

But they could, I think, regain a smidgen of respect were they to put on a convincing show that their first priority, in trying times, is getting into a semblance of order the house they constructed.

Once the public ledger looks rather less like a habitual gambler’s checkbook after a bad weekend in Vegas, there will be ample time for lawmakers to nose around in the personal predilections (and bodily fluids) of single mothers, overqualified computer technicians and bicycling parents.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.