Legal fight expected as welfare drug tests OK’d

Georgians applying for welfare will have to pass a drug test to receive benefits under legislation approved Tuesday by the state Senate.

Opponents warn that the bill, if signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, will lead to a lawsuit. They point to a similar law in Florida. Opponents there sued, and a federal judge has halted the law.

But Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), who helped spearhead the drug testing effort, told Georgia Health News after the 36-15 vote that supporters have anticipated a legal challenge and have crafted legislation  that he believes will be upheld.

“We worked very hard on the bill,’’ he said.

Albers said he and others consulted officials in Florida, the Georgia attorney general’s office, and the Heritage Foundation in formulating the legislation. He said the federal welfare reform law of the 1990s allows such drug testing.

Additionally Tuesday, the Senate passed separate health-related bills that would beef up state efforts to combat Medicaid fraud; accelerate the use of drug courts to treat low-level offenders; crack down on ‘‘pill mills’’ that sell narcotics illegally; and re-criminalize assisted suicide in Georgia.

Opponents of the drug testing bill said a lawsuit is certain, and contrary to Albers, they suggested it would ultimately prove successful.

The Georgia bill ‘‘is on very shaky constitutional ground,’’ said Shelley Senterfitt, an attorney representing the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Georgia Women for a Change.

She said the bill is “substantially similar’’ to the one passed in Florida, which is now before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Senterfitt said ‘‘suspicionless’’ drug testing has been shown to be unconstitutional. She pointed to the striking down of a Georgia law that required candidates running for public office to take a drug test.

Albers defended the bill as ‘‘leveling the playing field,’’ because applicants for private-sector jobs often have to be drug-tested. He said he has taken several drug tests himself.

“This is a good government bill,’’ he said.

More use of drug courts is part of a broad criminal justice reform bill (House Bill 1176) that passed the Senate unanimously.

Georgia now has more than 100 accountability courts, many of which require defendants to work, stay sober and get treatment. Deal has proposed to quintuple the funding for them to $10 million, according to a recent AJC story.

The vocal backers of the pill mill legislation have included state Attorney General Sam Olens, who says these narcotics operations have seeped into Georgia since Florida passed a tough law against them.

Sen. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler), a pharmacist who spoke on behalf of House Bill 972, said the legislation would help ‘‘get pill mills out of our communities.’’

The legislation would place pain clinics under the jurisdiction of the state medical board and require them to be owned by physicians.

The bill banning assisted suicide follows a recent unanimous decision by the Georgia Supreme Court that killed the old law.

The court struck down the 1994 state law on assisted suicide because it targeted only those who publicly advertised their involvement in the practice. The court said that approach infringed on free speech, but that a simple ban on assisted suicide was constitutional.