Rolling A Joint
Rolling A Joint

Government’s welfare drug-testing plans will end in disaster

RENDEZVIEW: If Scott Morrison and his government truly want to change our national welfare system for the better they need to start paying attention to the hard facts in front of them, instead of covering their eyes, writes Jarryd Bartle.

The plan would see welfare recipients who test positive for illicit drugs subject to stricter hurdles in order to receive payments, likely resulting in many recipients dropping out of the system entirely.

This is justified as a "tough but fair" approach to get people out of welfare dependency by the PM and his colleagues.

"We know absolutely for certain that large numbers of people in the welfare system have barriers to employment which are caused by a drug and alcohol problems," Social Services Minister Christian Porter noted when discussing the proposal in 2017.

However, the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey - the main source of illicit drug use statistics in Australia - says otherwise.

While the national survey found that 48.8 per cent of employed respondents had never used illicit drugs, that figure was almost 10 per cent higher, 57.1 per cent to be exact, in unemployed Australians.

Indeed, when looking at socio-economic indices, Australia's most disadvantaged were actually the least likely to have ever used illicit drugs.

And this makes sense when you actually stop and think about it. Drugs cost money. Often a lot of money. And it's practically impossible to afford a habit on $280 a week, which is the average Newstart payment.

The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that the number of people who had never used drugs was higher among unemployed Australians. Picture: iStock
The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that the number of people who had never used drugs was higher among unemployed Australians. Picture: iStock

But government statements around the issue of drug testing welfare recipients tend to avoid statistics on overall use, and instead narrow in on survey results of people who have used illicit drugs in the last 12 months (sometimes erroneously called 'regular users').

Looking at this narrow slice, we do see that unemployed people are more likely to have used illicit drugs in the last 12 months, but not by much. Unemployed respondents made up 23.6 per cent of recent users in the national survey, while employed respondents made up 17.6 per cent.

The survey showed that the most common recently used illicit drug is cannabis (used by 44.7 per cent of employed Australians, and 36.9 per cent of unemployed people). For all other illicit drug categories in the national survey, recent use is under 5 per cent whether employed or unemployed.

So based off these findings, we can see that unemployed people are less likely to use illicit drugs, but when they do it tends to be cannabis, a very low risk drug. Which leads to the next question, what does illicit drug use have to do with unemployment?

While the narrative is that unemployed people are sitting at home smoking bongs instead of looking for work, that is far from the truth.

In her submission on the drug testing proposal last year Professor Carla Treloar from the University of NSW noted, "The international literature suggests that substance use issues among welfare recipients are less widespread than thought, and other barriers to self-sufficiency are more prominent, such as poor physical health, poor academic skills, mental health issues, transportation barriers and language barriers."

And as unpopular as it may be to point out, there's also no indication within the findings that illicit drug use by unemployed people in Australia is inherently problematic.

The most commonly used illicit drug is cannabis. Picture: iStock
The most commonly used illicit drug is cannabis. Picture: iStock

Only around 10 per cent of illicit drug users become "addicted" or demonstrate a problematic relationship to a substance. The overwhelming majority of people who use drugs do so to socialise, to de-stress, and generally for pleasure.

Nevertheless, could drug testing change the lives of the very small number of welfare recipients who are, in fact, addicted? According to every single submission by public health authorities on the drug testing proposal, the answer is no.

"A drug testing pilot would have delivered an ineffective, expensive and harmful regime that would have hindered, not helped Australians struggling with addiction," noted Associate Professor Adrian Reynolds, President of the Royal Australian College of Physician's Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine, in a celebratory statement when the proposal was first dropped.

'So what?', you might, say. 'This is my taxpayer money and I don't want to fund some dole bludgers drug use!'

But this kind of thinking misunderstands the fundamental nature of welfare.

Welfare is not given as a favour bestowed by benevolent taxpayers, it is a right for those living in a functioning modern society. We do not have an authoritarian government, tracing every penny provided to ensure it's used correctly. Did you use every family tax benefit on the costs of raising children? Every stimulus package on supporting the local economy? Chances are, probably not.

While it may be politically convenient for the government to blame chronic unemployment on illicit drug use, the justification doesn't match up to scrutiny.

We need to focus on improving the quality of our social safety net to ensure the focus is on empowering job seekers to access employment rather than monitoring their behaviour.

Jarryd Bartle is a writer and policy consultant.