Everyone Thinks Drug Testing Australians on Welfare Is a Terrible Idea

It appears the Government failed to ask any drug and alcohol treatment experts whether this policy would actually work.

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May 10 2017, 3:25am

During Tuesday night's Budget, amidst a flurry of announcements of higher taxes for the big banks and huge spending on infrastructure, the Turnbull Government revealed it would be starting a program of randomly drug testing welfare recipients. Doctors, harm minimisation workers, and drug reform advocates have all told VICE they were shocked by the announcement.

It appears the government failed to consult peak bodies around the country, including the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, about the new policy. Asked by VICE which experts were consulted about the policy change, the Department of Social Services declined to comment, noting, "The Government will make further announcements about the trial at an appropriate time."

"I can't think of anyone in the drug and alcohol sector who would think this was a good idea," Peter Wearne, director of services at the Youth Support and Advocacy Service (YSAS) told VICE. "If we're going down this path, all politicians should be randomly drug tested. They are on the public purse."

Beginning on January 1, 2018 at three as yet undisclosed locations, the two-year trial will see 5,000 people receiving Newstart and Youth Allowance randomly drug tested for cannabis, MDMA, and methamphetamine. Saliva, hair follicle, and urine testing have all been floated as options. Those who fail will be placed on the controversial Cashless Debit Card for welfare payments, and a second positive result will see people directed to a doctor for substance abuse treatment. Refusing testing will mean the individual's payments are cut off.

The program is an import from New Zealand, where it has strongly divided opinion. In 2014, the scheme tested 8,001 welfare beneficiaries for drugs. Only 22 tested positive. The NZ government saw this as proof the scheme was working, but had no data to back up that claim—while critics said it was a failure, particularly given the high costs of testing.

Greg Denham, a board member at Harm Reduction Australia, says his organisation was not consulted about the changes. "We do have major concerns about them," he explains, estimating the cost of an individual drug test is about $100. For the initial trial of 5,000 people, this could mean costs between $500,000 and millions of dollars, depending on how many times people are tested during the year. "That doesn't factor in the implementation, the costs of the staff involved [etc.]," Denham adds. The Department of Social Services has not released how much the program will cost, noting, "the cost of this measure is commercial-in-confidence and has not been published."

"The tragic thing is, this is the only funding to address the issues of drugs and alcohol in the current Budget and it's as dumb as a bag of spanners," says Dr David Caldicott, an emergency physician at Calvary Hospital in Canberra. "When there are so many other things they could've financed… this is what they've decided they want to spend their money on." The Budget doesn't appear to allocate any additional funding for public drug treatment services, despite the fact this scheme is designed to get more people into substance abuse programs.

Peter Wearne says YSAS is currently treating between 3,000 and 5,000 young people for substance abuse issues, and is concerned the system can't cope with any more people. "There's not 2,000 spare beds for treatment in Australia... and in regional areas, it's even worse," he explains.

"In Victoria, there's three months wait for public treatment services... we have less than 400 residential treatment beds," says Ash Blackwell, vice president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Blackwell believes the policy is likely to direct a lot of recreational drug users—someone who might have smoked a joint or taken a cap over the weekend—into serious drug treatment programs. "It's quite possible it's going to displace people who actually want to be [in treatment]," he says.

Will Tregoning from harm minimisation group Unharm says the new policy is "cynical and counterproductive," echoing Blackwell's concerns that the program lacks any distinction between recreational users and drug addicts. He notes all the evidence we have shows mandatory drug treatment aren't very effective. Programs work best when the people in them believe they need help, and actually want to be there. "It's just this facade of toughness," Tregoning says. "It's fake policy that stands in for anything more effective."

The new policy is also complicated by Australia's recent legalisation of medical cannabis for certain health concerns. "This [policy] also affects people on disability pension," says Nevena Spirovska, founder of the High Alert campaign. "So anyone who is using cannabis medicinally will be potentially punished under this policy." SBS is reporting people will also no longer be able to qualify for the disability support pension because of substance abuse problems. "This is one of the single largest steps back we've taken in drug law reform in Australia," Spirovska adds. "This policy will actively harm people people suffering from addiction; moving us further from treating it as a health issue."

Dr Caldicott believes the scheme will have no effect on reducing drug use. "What is the intent? Is the intent to stop people using drug? Because it won't do that," he said. "Guess what's going to happen? People are going to switch to other drugs [that aren't being tested for]. That's exactly what's happened to roadside testing." And Ash Blackwell says it's clear the government didn't consult any of the latest research around drug treatment. "I have to wonder at the moment if people designing policy have the internet," he says. "What you're going to get is a really expensive system that fails on it's own terms: it won't get people off drugs, it won't be cost effective… I feel like the government should've known better."

The drug testing scheme is part of wider welfare reforms, which treasurer Scott Morrison said were designed to "stop people trying to take an easy ride on our welfare system to protect it for those who need it most." Other reforms will include a three strike system, where recipients will see their payments cut by 50 percent for two weeks if they miss a meeting without a "reasonable excuse." A second strike will see 100 percent of the fortnightly payment cut, and after the third strike people will receive no benefits for four weeks.

More as this story develops.

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