Drug plan based on stigma not love

May 20, 2017

The recent federal budget announced a terrible new policy — drug testing 5000 new recipients of Youth Allowance or Newstart. The drugs tested for will be cannabis, methamphetamine and MDMA.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has defended the policy as "aimed at stabilising the lives of people with alcohol and drug abuse problems by encouraging them to participate in treatment as part of their Job Plan". At the same time, people with diagnosed substance abuse disorders have been excluded from disability benefits.

It's hard to know where to start in critiquing this breathtakingly hypocritical and misguided policy.

It is abundantly clear that the aim is not to "stabilise lives and encourage people to participate in treatment". If the Turnbull government genuinely wanted to help people into treatment it would direct what will undoubtedly be the very high costs of this program towards treatment.

The reality for people who use drugs is that it is hard to get into treatment. There are only about half of the needed places. People who live in the country or an outer suburban area, are a sole father, or need culturally or age appropriate services, you're probably right out of luck.

There are a lot of people working very hard to make treatment systems better and more evidence-based but they have a long way to go. 

If "helping people" — other than government MPs in marginal seats — was the aim, then the selection of substances to be tested is pretty odd.

The National Household Drug Survey, the best population-level measure of both legal and illegal drug use, affirmed, once again, that alcohol use is by far the biggest issue facing Australia, with nearly 30% of the population engaged in "risky" drinking.

A very high proportion of people who use the drugs to be tested use them occasionally and not in a way that is problematic. People who do use drugs and alcohol in a problematic way often have complex lives and increasing the stigma and marginalisation they experience is an abuse of human rights.

Drug user activist and manager of the Canberra Alliance of Harm Minimisation and Advocacy Chris Gough recently told the Guardian: “When Barnaby Joyce gets on the ABC and says ‘It’s really simple. We’re paying taxes to these people, and the least that they can do is to turn up to a job interview straight’, it’s just not true to life.

“It’s an oversimplification and it doesn’t work like that.

"We’re talking about people who can’t sit at home and write a resume, because they don’t have the internet, they don’t have a computer, and if they did, they might not have the education [needed].

“We're talking about complex needs, co-morbidity with mental health and drug and alcohol problems, homelessness, poverty is a big one, and the criminalisation that’s layered on to drug use in society comes with legal issues as well.”

Targeting the substances that happen to be illegal, as opposed to putting everyone on welfare on a Basics Card so that taxpayers’ money will not be "wasted", is an escalation of the war on drugs. This is happening at the same time that there is a very broad agreement that not only has the war on drugs not worked, it has caused untold harm and the harm has by far the biggest impact on people at the margins.

This mean-spirited and short-sighted policy will have a huge negative impact on people who are already living tough lives.

People who use drugs routinely experience stigma — 80% have been treated poorly when accessing health services. Stigma is a killer. It causes people to avoid health care, suffer and die early. Last year, the number of deaths from overdoses was about the same as those who died on the roads, far more than were killed by sharks.

Where is the response, where are the safety nets, the naloxone distribution, the safe injecting facilities? They don't exist and are actively blocked as more and more people die.

Australia is fortunate to have a funded network of drug user organisations that provide service delivery and advocacy for some of the most marginalised people in the country. But their reach falls way short of the need.

Publicly reviled on a routine basis, criminalised, jailed for their choice of substance, separated from their children — the impact of the war on drugs is felt most heavily by those already vulnerable people.

This policy will make people's lives worse: it will push people into using riskier substances to avoid detection, it will push people to despair. How can Turnbull describe this "a policy based on love" and sleep at night?

[Mary Ellen Harrod is the chief executive of the NSW Users and AIDS Association and a board member of the Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League.]

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