Beginning this week, West Virginia residents will be eligible for free community college tuition for an associate's degree or training certificate if they can meet certain requirements, including passing a drug test before each semester.
While West Virginia's free college program follows similar programs in other states, it is the first to introduce drug testing as an eligibility requirement. According to the law, the program is not only a way for the state to invest in its citizens and boost workforce participation rates—lawmakers also hope it will help combat the spread of drug addiction in the state, which has the highest age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths involving opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
"West Virginia is currently facing a devastating drug epidemic, and the hope that comes with increased access to career education and higher quality employment opportunities is an indispensable tool against the spread of drug addiction," the law reads.
To qualify for free tuition, students must pay for and pass tests for drugs including THC, opiates, cocaine, and amphetamines within 60 days of the start of each semester. (There are exemptions for those with legally prescribed medications.)
The policy was modeled after WorkForce West Virginia, a state government agency that provides resources including job opportunities, unemployment compensation, training, and tax incentives. A law effective last year requires all WorkForce participants who enter training-level positions to undergo drug screening before training begins.
In recent years, drug testing has been introduced in multiple states for recipients of government benefits, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. These requirements have sparked controversy; a 2011 Florida law requiring drug testing for TANF recipients was even ruled unconstitutional by a three-judge panel.
Pacific Standard has reported on the impact of drug testing for government assistance programs, as well as research that has found such programs ultimately do not reduce drug use. As Emily Moon wrote earlier this year:
Instead, [drug testing] makes federal assistance programs more expensive and less effective; research shows the requirements discourage people from applying and fail to help those with illegal drug dependences get jobs—the long-term goal of most public-assistance programs.
Drug testing in education is also a contested issue. According to NIDA, random drug testing in public middle and high schools yields mixed results and should not be used as a stand-alone strategy for reducing drug use among students. In the realm of higher education, a 2017 decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals banned mandatory drug testing for most students at the State Technical College of Missouri. Judge Nanette K. Laughrey found that such testing violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. Under the ruling, school officials must have probable cause or warrants in order to administer drug tests to students.
State Senate President Mitch Carmichael told WVNews that he isn't worried about the drug test requirement affecting the number of applicants, since many of the jobs that applicants would later be applying for already require drug tests.