The Real Reason the Government Drug Tested Your Sewage

In certain parts of Australia, data on drug usage is to be leveraged against the poor.
August 27, 2017, 1:03am

The mayor of Queensland's Logan City was furious to learn this week that his town had been chosen as one of three sites for the Turnbull Government's controversial welfare drug testing scheme. Until he got a call from the ABC earlier this week, Luke Smith had no idea the trial was coming to Logan. "We didn't even know this was happening," Smith told ABC radio on Wednesday. "I think to announce this from the top down is a disgrace and the lack of consultation is something I am quite amazed by."

Why Logan was chosen likely had little to do with the town's drug dependency or youth unemployment rate, which has actually fallen from 17.1 percent to 12.1 percent in the past couple of years. Instead, it's believed the government used the results of its National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program to specifically target regions with higher concentration of drugs in their sewage.

Similar sewage testing is becoming more popular around the world, with programs running across Europe, China, New Zealand, and the US. However, drug experts have serious concerns about how reliant the data is, and the stigmatising effect bad test results may have on a town.

WATCH: How sewage drug testing works

In Logan, the two-year trial will see 2,500 of the city's 300,000 residents subjected to drug testing, as a requirement to receive either Youth Allowance or Newstart—both welfare benefits directed to young people. If someone fails a test—getting a positive result for cannabis, ice, MDMA, or certain opioids—the government may quarantine up to 80 percent of their Centrelink payments onto a cashless welfare card. For someone receiving Newstart, this would mean they had only $53 left available in cash.

Failing a second test will see the person referred to a professional for treatment—after they have been charged for the cost of the test, of course. Drug experts have slammed the plan, noting there's no evidence welfare drug testing actually reduces addiction rates, and programs around the world have actually worsened the situation for many of the community's most vulnerable.

Logan is the second low-income area announced for testing, after Bankstown-Canterbury in Sydney's west. There are currently 12,000 people in the region receiving either Newstart or Youth Allowance. Of these, 1,750 will be selected for random drug testing, which will be performed at a Centrelink office. The government has assured the public that the results will not be shared with police.

If the welfare drug testing legislation is able to pass through parliament—by no means a sure thing given the opposition it's facing from both Labor and the Greens—the testing will begin in January, 2018. "What we are trying to do here is find ways to use the very important lever of the welfare system to drive behavioural change," Social Services Minister Christian Porter told reporters in Sydney. However, Minister Porter was also unapologetic that the scheme may catch one-time drug users, saying there is no lawful amount of drug intake.