Senators Consider Drug Testing Candidates in South Carolina

People filing for public office would also have to submit to drug testing if legislators concerned about the fallout of former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel's admission of cocaine use of have their way.

Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler filed his bill a day after news broke that Ravenel had been indicted on a federal cocaine conspiracy charge. The June indictment came just six months after the Republican Charleston real estate developer took office. He has since pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

"The reason I introduced this bill was in response to my constituents' outcry over our state treasurer and his situation," said Peeler, R-Gaffney, who took a drug test himself to get a commercial drivers' license. "It just makes sense to me that elected officials must first pass the drug test."

"What's good for one man should be good for the next man," Freddie William, 60, said as he sold art on a Columbia street corner. "If it's required for me to take a drug test, why shouldn't a man in a public office?"

Ravenel's indictment surprised people like Bobbie Futch, 61, who works at a Columbia music store. "I thought he was such an up and coming guy."

Futch said she wouldn't mind taking a drug test, but politicians should be required to do even more.

"I think they should give them lie detector tests," she said.

Drug tests aren't unusual in the workplace and are even required by law for some jobs. But the legislation may face a big roadblock: a past Supreme Court ruling says the Constitution, not the Legislature, sets limits on what people must do to hold an elective office. For instance, it says anyone eligible to vote "is eligible to any office to be voted for, unless disqualified by age, as prescribed in this Constitution."

"There's a big difference between what makes sense to us all and what constitutional limitations provide," said Thomas Crocker, who teaches constitutional law at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

The legislation also would require drug tests for people seeking federal offices. But Crocker points to a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision that blocked Congress from imposing standards on people becoming lawmakers beyond what the Constitution allowed.

If Congress couldn't create its own standards, "I don't think a state could do it at all," Crocker said.

Half of the Senate's Republicans and Democrats signed on as co-sponsors Peeler's bill, which Sen. Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg, plans to discuss during a subcommittee hearing this week.

Ravenel pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine, though his plea agreement calls for a reduced sentence because he has helped prosecutors with their investigation.