Australian Doctors Clash With Government Over Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

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Hundreds of Australian doctors and health-care workers have signed an open letter to the federal government asking officials not to implement mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients.

A Senate committee is currently considering a trial program that would screen 5,000 of Australia’s Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients. If the government is successful in implementing the changes, new recipients would be required to submit to drug testing for ecstasy, methamphetamines, cannabis, and other drugs—or have welfare payments restricted. The program would start in 2018 and run for two years.

Individuals who test positive would have 80% of their welfare payments quarantined onto a debit card that could be used only for certain purchases, such as rent, childcare, and food. Upon a second positive test, and individual would be referred for medical treatment.

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The idea behind the tests isn’t a new one. Australia’s conservative government has argued that lawmakers should take steps to ensure that no taxpayer money be spent on drugs. Minister for Social Services Christian Porter, in his reading of the bill to Parliament, invoked the same justification.

“The community has a right to expect that taxpayer-funded welfare payments are not being used to fund drug and alcohol addiction and that jobseekers do all that they can reasonably do to find a job, including addressing any barriers which have prevented them from doing so,” he said.

“This trial is not about penalising jobseekers with drug-abuse issues,” he added. “It is about finding new and better ways of identifying these jobseekers and ensuring they are referred to the support and treatment they need.”

Many in the scientific and medical communities, however, see it differently. In their open letter, they argue that drug testing welfare recipients will make things worse. “We do not and cannot support policies that will push people suffering from difficult alcohol and drug problems further into the margins,” the letter says. “Making it harder for people struggling with drug and alcohol problems to access income support will push people who need treatment into poverty, undermining their chance of recovery.”

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The evidence seems to be on the scientists’ side. In 2013, the Australian National Council on Drugs published a position paper on drug testing, which concluded, “There is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or for society, and some evidence indicating such a practice could have high social and economic costs. In addition, there would be serious ethical and legal problems in implementing such a program in Australia. Drug testing of welfare beneficiaries ought not be considered.”

Under the government’s plan, any positive drug test is seen as evidence of addiction—and notably, there’s no exception for medical cannabis use.

Similar programs in the US have been deemed costly and ineffective. In results from a screening program in Tennessee, only 65 out of 40,000 recipients returned positive tests. A Missouri program that cost the state $1.35 million over three years found just 48 positive tests out of 39,000. And in Michigan, drug testing program implemented in 1999 was successfully challenged by the ACLU, though the state launched a similar program in 2014.

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Given the ample evidence of failed programs in the United States, skeptics say the Australian’s government’s plan is more about ideology than outcome.

Even other Australian politicians, such independent Sen. Jacqui Lambie and Greens Sen. Sarah Hanson-Young, have called out the government for failing to lead by example. They’ve argued that Australian politicians should be the first to be drug tested. After all, critics say, lawmakers are on the taxpayer payroll, too.