Welfare Drug Testing: Another Step Backwards

The changing conversation around drugs falls on deaf Parliamentary ears with the 2017 budget, writes Nikola Jokanovic.

Things are changing in Australia. We’re more accepting of other cultures, religions and refugees. We’re greener. Racism, sexism and LGBT rights are marched on by thousands. Talk around drugs is changing too, the sentiment moving from hardline prohibition towards harm minimisation. Funny then, that so little of any of these concerns are reflected in the actions of our government, who recently advanced the frontline of their war on drugs to now also include welfare recipients.

As part of a general crackdown on welfare spending, the 2017 budget announced that 5,000 welfare recipients will undergo random drug testing for cannabis, ecstasy and methamphetamine. Test positive once and you’re given a cashless welfare card which cannot purchase alcohol or withdraw cash; test twice and you’re referred to a doctor for assessment and drug abuse treatment; test thrice and you’re out, no welfare for a month.

It reads well enough on paper – a tough love policy targeting drug-inclined dole bludgers, with treatment options to boot. But in practice, the scheme would create a number of issues; practically, ideologically, even just logically.

The tests will be limited to Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients. In plainer English, disadvantaged students and young people. Is this about setting them straight early, or just picking on the easy crowd, those more likely to have passed one around recently? The patronising cashless card will only further ostracise those on welfare, already seen poorly as slackers who should ‘just get a job’ or else be scraped from the barrel’s bottom. The rehabilitation options to which repeat offenders are deferred are quite underfunded, having received no budgetary love this year. Addicts will resort to crime to scratch their deadly itch after inevitably running the three-strike gauntlet. And lastly, drug testing is expensive! The scheme will ultimately cost us more than it will save.

None of this is new. Welfare drug testing is only the latest symptom of Australia’s endless war on drugs, which gathers more backwards momentum with each new policy. From sniffer dogs at local pubs to DUIs for a joint nine days ago, the current approach is seemingly based on the idea that once we give every drug user under the sun a criminal record the issue will be solved. The results speak for themselves every festival season: police complain that sniffer dogs are not a deterrent, cue reports of false detections and invasive searches, spending increases while drug use remains stable, rinse and repeat yearly for your festival of choice.

The TV spot for NSW’s Mobile Drug Testing scheme. If it catches drug use days back, is it really about impairment and safety?

Especially concerning is how these tired policies are incompatible with the cannabis decriminalisation movement sweeping the globe. More and more Australians want it decriminalised. Cannabis has proven medicinal benefit, creates much less social harm than its legal counterpart alcohol, and still it sits on Schedule 1, nestled amongst literally poisonous substances and heroin. Australia’s roadside drug testing scheme, into which millions are dumped annually, primarily targets cannabis, with no concern for drivers smacked to the dark side of the moon on prescription drugs (not to mention that these tests purposely switch off their cocaine-testing capability, lest a politician pulls up!). When decriminalisation finally makes the agenda, it will have to be one or the other.

Neither our government’s one-size-fits-all mantra ‘just don’t do drugs’ nor their zero-tolerance policies are cutting it; so what other options are there? Interest has grown in the harm minimisation approach. Accepting that drugs will be used no matter what, this approach finds ways to allow users to at least do so safely, with drug information, decriminalisation and a focus on rehabilitation and social reintegration. This means treatment rather than punishment, and drug education instead of feigning ignorance and letting teens pop whatever bathroom-cooked pill comes their way. Decriminalisation in countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal has seen massive success with drug-related issues like addiction, overdose, costs and crime. A good start here would be festival pill testing, a simple precaution on which Parliament have needlessly dragged their feet.

While other countries take progressive strides forward on drugs, Australia takes yet another backwards leap with welfare drug testing. Our politicians seem keen as ever to continue playing deaf-and-dumb to the changing conversation on drugs.

Feature image: screencap from Transport for NSW’s Mobile Drug Testing advertisement via YouTube.