The stated aim is twofold: to help unemployed people with drug problems receive treatment and find jobs, and to address community concerns that public money, through welfare payments, is being spent on illicit substances. (ABC News, 2017)
As of 1st January 2018, the government is piloting mandatory random testing for selected illicit substances as a condition to receiving support payments. Of the Youth Allowance and Newstart recipients 5000 people in Logan (QLD), Canterbury-Bankstown (NSW), and Mandurah (WA), will be subject to the new policy over the two-year trial period. Recipients who test positive for ecstasy, methamphetamines, ice and/or cannabis will be placed on income management for 2 years, quarantining 80% of their income on a cashless card. If the test returns positive a second time, the recipient is referred to a medical professional for treatment of substance misuse. Refusal of the drug testing or withdrawal from treatment could result in termination of welfare.
The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey revealed that 23.6% of unemployed people had used illicit drugs compared to 17.6% of employed people in the past 12 months. The survey found that 8.5% of welfare recipients reported using illicit substances in the past week. Furthermore, unemployed people were three times more likely to use ice and other amphetamines, and twice as likely to use cannabis compared to their employed counterparts. The highly contested decision was allegedly implemented to remove drug use as a barrier to employment, however, due to the cross-sectional nature of the household study, causality between drug-use and employment cannot be assumed.
Similar programs have been piloted in other countries including New Zealand and the United States, although confounding factors such as socio-economic status, marginalisation and peer influence were not accounted for. A study in Florida assessed the effects of substance abuse among applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits. The findings showed insignificant differences in employment, earnings and government service uptake between individuals who tested positive and those who tested negative for substance abuse. Additionally, there was very little difference between groups using different types of drugs. Results from the New Zealand case study reported that 32% of welfare recipients reported illicit drug use in contrast to 18% in the general population. However, due to the clandestine nature of drug use and the associated stigma, such studies are subject to various response biases.
In 2013, the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) published a cost-benefit analysis on drug testing of welfare beneficiaries. The report found no explicit evidence to suggest that drug testing has a positive impact on employment, quite the contrary; it may have serious social and economic repercussions. The estimated cost of the program was $118,140, which was $45,000 more than the state would have paid in benefits to those people whose payments were discontinued after testing positive. Additionally, the government allocated $10million presumably to subsidise rehabilitation courses for recipients who test positive despite limited evidence demonstrating the efficacy of coerced rehabilitation. Considering less than 50% of drug users have access to appropriate services, it may be more effective to improve accessibility to services. The ANCD unequivocally opposed the motion and emphasized the ethical and legal problems that may arise as a result of mandatory drug testing.
The product of misconstrued research overlayed with stigmatization of welfare recipients, is poorly informed generic solutions to a complex social issue. As the ANCD report suggested, it is not only important to consider the efficacy of the policy, but the ethical implications. The exercise of recruitment through demographic profiling could in itself be discriminatory, potentially exacerbating the existing stigma associated with low-socio economic areas and reduce tolerance of people who use drugs. In the legal discourse, it is considered a serious invasion of privacy. The arbitrary definition for ‘drug use’ is also a risk factor for inappropriate treatment of recreational drug users. Nonetheless, the government has stipulated that using tax-payers money to fund drug use is unacceptable in all capacities.
It is still unclear whether this new initiative is founded on legitimate health concerns for welfare recipients or an attempt to reduce welfare payments to people in low-socio economic areas; presumed to have co-occurring drug dependency issues. The current evidence base is vague at best and lacks the level of rigour necessary for such public health policy to ensure the best interests of the Australian public are conserved, particularly those who are vulnerable to disadvantage.
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