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The Ontario government will introduce today a policy requiring welfare recipients to take mandatory tests for drug use, a step that the Human Rights Commissioner has warned may be against the law.

Social Services Minister John Baird will set out the details of the policy, which is designed to keep a commitment in the Blueprint book of 1999 campaign promises.

But Human Rights Commissioner Keith Norton has warned the government that drug users cannot be denied welfare benefits because an addiction to drugs or alcohol is considered "a handicap" under the province's Human Rights Code.

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In a confidential letter sent to Mr. Baird last year, Mr. Norton expressed his concern about the idea of requiring people addicted to drugs or alcohol to submit to a test and to rehabilitation treatment as a condition of keeping their eligibility for welfare. "Individuals with handicaps or perceived handicaps have a right to equal treatment in services," Mr. Norton said in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

In July, the Ontario Court of Appeal, the province's highest court, reinforced Mr. Norton's argument. It ruled: "Substance abusers are handicapped and entitled to the protection of the [Human Rights]Code."

The court's ruling in the case of Entrop v. Imperial Oil stressed that drug and alcohol abusers cannot be discriminated against.

But Mr. Baird has defended the plan to test welfare recipients for drug use, arguing it will help them overcome their addictions, not punish them for using drugs.

In a letter to Mr. Norton, Mr. Baird wrote, "People with addictions need treatment to give them a chance at dignity, hope and the opportunity of a job."

"You can't get off welfare and hold a job if you're addicted to drugs. That's why we'll provide mandatory treatment for welfare recipients who use drugs. . . . Those who refuse treatment or who won't take tests on request will lose their benefits," said the pledge.

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