Should we drug test social welfare recipients?

Should we drug test social welfare recipients?

2000 random welfare recipients in the Canterbury-Bankstown Area will be tested for Ice, Ecstacy and Cannabis, as early as next year.

In Australia’s continuous war on drugs, a proposal to drug test welfare recipients starting in 2018 was introduced in the 2017-18 budget by Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison who said this will save the government $632 million dollars in welfare payments.

In a press release, Social Services Minister Christian Porter said the new drug testing measure is being introduced as a way “to ensure taxpayers’ money is not being used to fund addictions.” However, critics argue there is no clear benefit to this proposed regime except to further stigmatise illicit drug users who are already on the fringes of society.

How will drug testing welfare recipients work?

Starting in January 2018 a two-year trial program will be introduced in three yet-to-be disclosed locations to randomly drug test 5000 recipients of Youth Allowance and Newstart. Tests will be administered by a private contractor during Department of Human Services’ appointments. Urine, hair follicles and saliva will be tested to detect marijuana, ice and/or ecstasy.

But as critics point out the “random” part of the testing might not be that unsystematic because the program also includes “a data-driven profiling tool… to identify relevant characteristics that indicate a higher risk of substance abuse issues” (Source: Huffington Post), which proponents against the drug testing say will be used as a means to target and profile certain welfare recipients.

If the welfare recipient tests positive for one of the substances in question he or she would be quarantined from their welfare funds and “placed on the cashless debit card” that can only be used for essential living expenses. Porter says this measure will be used to help welfare recipients using drugs “stabilise their finances and reduce the cash available to spend on drugs.” If someone tests positive on more than one occasion they would also be sent to medical professionals for “assessment” and “further treatment.”

But what happens to people with little or no treatment options? As Mary Ellen Harrod of the Sydney Morning Herald points out “we know we have only about half the number of treatment places needed in Australia.” What about those individuals living in rural areas for instance who cannot get to a treatment centre?

The impacts of drug testing on welfare recipients

What happens if we start withholding benefits from people who use drugs? Critics argue that alcohol and drug abuse is not a moral evil that our government needs to penalise people for. It is a consequence of a much larger systemic issue. Social exclusion and punishing people who experience issues with drug use will only push them further to the margins of society, instead of encouraging them to participate in treatment and providing them with the help they need.

Welfare advocates say that drug testing welfare recipients will further stigmatise people who use drugs, especially those on welfare who are already in a socially precarious situation. As an “unintended consequence” of those in the midst of an addiction it may see some people to turn to crime out of desperation if welfare payments are restricted. It may also encourage people to use heavier more expensive drugs like heroin or cocaine. Drugs that will not be part of the drug testing proposed.

They also warn that the drug testing ensures that those seeking treatment will have poor access to all forms of health care, including drug treatment.

Critics against the drug testing further suggest that implementing a system for drug testing welfare recipients would not only be difficult, it would also be expensive. Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation agrees, highlighting how the “amount of money to be spent per positive case is very high.”

There is no evidence that suggests this punitive approach would have any social benefit either. Melbourne University drug expert, Associate Professor John Fitzgerald, said similar measures had been deployed in 15 US states and had no positive results to show for it. Fitzgerald says drug testing would only serve to push disadvantaged Australians into criminal activity to survive. He is also concerned that the burden will fall on families and the community to support those people who are further disadvantaged by the drug testing – people who are often already on the margins themselves.