Drug testing welfare recipients is about money not love

September 8, 2017

The federal government has proposed a drug testing trial for new welfare recipients.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the proposed policy as being “all about love”, saying: “If you’ve got a friend who is on drugs, what do you want to do? You desperately want to get them off it.”

This needs to be examined.

The federal government has blunt levers available for effecting social change and helping people with problematic substance use. Examples include funding treatment places directly; ensuring there are Medicare items that increase access to treatment for alcohol and drug issues, such as for specialists and counselling; prevention through border security; and regulating access to social welfare including income management.

The policy currently before the Senate aims to “prevent welfare payments being used to fund drug and alcohol addictions which are creating significant barriers to employment and assist people to overcome substance abuse that prevents them from finding work”.

One proposed measure is to recognise treatment as a “legitimate step towards employment [that] can be counted as a required activity”, which is a positive move. The most recently released statistics (from 2013) say risky alcohol consumption and some drug use are related to unemployment. So far so good: the policy is using the available levers in a reasonable manner.

Drug testing of Newstart and Youth Allowance claimants will be by saliva, hair follicle and urine for ecstasy, marijuana and methamphetamines. An initial positive test will result in further random tests. More than one positive test will result in an assessment by a contracted medical professional and treatment activity will be included in their Job Plan. Testing and treatment are to be done by external contractors with the total cost “commercial-in-confidence”.

It is difficult to perceive the love, or the fairness, in these measures, unless it is love for the external contractor who is awarded what will no doubt be highly lucrative work.

Significant objections have been raised in a Senate Inquiry, petitions and in an open letter signed by more than 1000 alcohol and other drug professionals, including a lack of treatment places, no workforce capacity to increase treatment places and no evidence supporting the efficacy of coerced treatment. There was also no consultation with health departments, either at the Commonwealth or state level, who are primarily responsible for health care.

The personal cost and harm of this policy is much more obvious than the love. We know that risky alcohol and drug use are closely linked to living in remote and disadvantaged areas. Being marginalised and disadvantaged leads to increased drug and alcohol use, not the other way around.

Targeting already marginalised people in this blunt way will only increase disadvantage and social isolation.

Imagine you are a young person in Bankstown, one of the trial areas, where youth unemployment sits at 10% and has been linked to increasing mental health issues. If you are a new recipient of Newstart, a hair sample test may detect a joint you shared at party three weeks ago. The risk of a further test result would increase the pressure in an already stressful situation. At a time when you might need your friends more than ever you could be alienated from them and experience increased isolation.

If it is love being expressed, why are only drug users targeted and why only these drugs? We know that alcohol causes by far the greatest share of harm in Australia.

About one in four people have experienced negative consequences of someone else’s drinking and there is a strong relationship between risky drinking and unemployment. But the proposed policy only targets drugs. In fact, the unemployed are less likely to take ecstasy, one of the drugs which will be tested for, than employed people.

As a drug user and a person who represents drug users at the policy level in NSW, it is hard to feel the love in these policies. People who are already having a hard time will have a harder time. We will be forced into a system with no regard to personal circumstances, using tests that don’t measure anything real about people’s lives. 

It is worth bearing in mind that the war on drugs is a form of social control that has been cynically employed by multiple governments — most recently and notably in the Philippines — and it is happening here and now in Australia.

Drug users are being targeted because we are easy targets: drug use is illegal. There is no multi-million-dollar lobbying effort on our behalf — quite the contrary, someone stands to make a great deal of money from this policy. If this policy does go through, that money will be earned from the hardship and stress experienced by very real people.

Labor will not be supporting this bill. It can be blocked in the Senate by members of the Nick Xenophon Team (SA – Nick Xenophon, Skye Kakoschke-Moore, Stirling Griff and Rebekha Sharkie), Derryn Hinch (Vic) and David Leyonjhelm (NSW). Write to them today and let them know that this harmful and ethically questionable policy is not on and needs to be defeated in the Senate.

[Mary Ellen Harrod is the CEO of the NSW Users and AIDS Association.]

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