Drug testing for welfare recipients

Budget Review 2017–18 Index

Don Arthur

From 1 January 2018 five thousand new recipients of unemployment payments will be asked to take drug tests as part of trial to take place in three locations around Australia. If they refuse to take the test they may face penalties.[1]

People testing positive on the first test will be placed on the cashless debit card. If they test positive on later tests they may be asked to accept drug treatment as part of their mutual obligation requirements.[2]

Social Services Minister Christian Porter argues that drug use makes it harder for people to find work and move off income support. He says the trials will focus on ‘behavioural change’ and aim to remove drug use as a barrier to employment.[3]

An innovative approach

While drug testing welfare recipients has been tried overseas, there are some innovative aspects to the Government’s approach. The trial will combine four tools to identify and respond to drug use:

  • National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program—the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) analyses wastewater in the sewer system to measure and interpret drug use nationally and the Government plans to use this data to help choose locations for the drug testing trial.[4]
  • profiling tool to identify those at higher risk—the Government plans to use a profiling tool to focus testing on individuals who have characteristics associated with substance abuse issues.
  • drug testing tools—easy to use drug screening tools are now available and are commonly used by police for roadside testing.[5] A positive result on a drug screen usually requires a follow up test to confirm the result.[6] The trial will engage a contractor to administer the tests.
  • cashless debit card—these cards work in the same way as ordinary bank-issued debit cards except that recipients cannot withdraw cash or use the card merchant categories the Government has chosen to block (for example, bottle shops or gambling services).[7]

If an income support recipient gets a positive result the first time they are screened and tested, they will be given further randomly scheduled tests. If they test positive again, they will be referred to a contracted medical professional for an assessment. The medical professional may recommend treatment.

Drug testing works together with another budget measure that removes exemptions from mutual obligation requirements for income support recipients who are temporarily incapacitated due to drug or alcohol dependence. From 1 January 2018, drug and alcohol treatment can be included as a mutual obligation activity.[8]

This measure will require legislation.


Profiling and discrimination

Identifying people for testing based on their possession of characteristics that are statistically associated with drug abuse could lead to claims of discrimination if these characteristics are closely associated with ethnicity, gender or sexuality. This has been an issue in law enforcement.[9]

Inappropriate treatment of ‘recreational users’

While drugs such as marijuana may be illegal, occasional use outside of working hours may not affect a person’s chances of finding and keeping paid employment. As a result, preventing these people from accessing cash by moving them onto the cashless debit card is not likely to improve their employment prospects.

However, the Government may argue that the measure is justified on the grounds that using taxpayers’ money to pay for illicit drugs is unacceptable.[10]

Cutting off access to cash may increase crime

Before the cashless debit card was introduced in Ceduna, some residents worried that methamphetamine addicts might turn to crime in order to fund their habit.[11] A recent evaluation of the card failed to find any evidence of an increase in crime due to the loss of access to cash.[12]

It is possible that a measure that is more focused on users of drugs such as methamphetamine might have an effect on crimes such as shoplifting.[13]

Effectiveness of compulsory treatment

A number of commentators on drug policy have argued that drug treatment is most effective when the person themselves decides to stop using and seeks treatment. For example, Tony Trimingham and Gino Vumbaca argue that ‘the evidence for coerced treatment is one of high cost and poor outcomes’.[14] According to this argument, the Government would achieve better results if it directed funds towards improving access to treatment for income support recipients who chose to seek help.

Symbolism over pragmatism

It is ‘difficult to escape the conclusion that this proposal is symbolic, rather than designed to have a positive impact on the well-being of those to be tested’, argues Professor Peter Whiteford of the Australian National University. Whiteford cites overseas research that suggests that substance abuse is not a major cause of continued reliance on income support.[15]


The Government has not yet made any announcement about how the trials will be evaluated.

[1].          Department of Social Services (DSS), Welfare reform—2017 Budget, Factsheet, DSS, Canberra, May 2017, p. 3

[2].          Ibid., p. 3.

[3].          S Martin, ‘Crackdown in jobless hot spots flush with drugs’, The Australian, 11 May 2017.

[4].          Ibid. and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, National wastewater drug monitoring program, Report 1, March 2017.

[5].          State Library of New South Wales, ‘What is mobile drug testing?’, Druginfo website, 11 April 2017.

[6].          D Rouen, K Dolan and J Kimber, A review of drug detection testing and an examination of urine, hair, saliva and sweat, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) technical report, 120, NDARC, Sydney, 2001.

[7].          For more detail on how the cashless debit card works see: D Arthur and P Pyburne, Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015, Bills digest, 27, 2015–16, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2015.

[8].          DSS, op. cit., pp. 3–4. See the Budget Review article on Job seeker compliance and workforce participation for more detail on this measure. There is also a related measure that is designed to prevent people from claiming Disability Support Pension solely on the basis that they are affected by drug and alcohol abuse.

[9].          L Bennett Moses and J Chan, ‘Using Big Data for Legal and Law Enforcement Decisions: Testing the New Tools’, University of New South Wales Law Journal, 37(2), 2014, pp. 643–678

[10].       S Morrison (Treasurer), Interview Alice Workman, Buzzfeed, transcript, 11 May 2017.

[11].       J Gothe-Snape, ‘Crime wave fear at welfare card’, The Advertiser, 19 February 2016.

[12].       Orima Research, Cashless Debit Card Trial Evaluation: Wave 1 interim evaluation report, Orima Research, February 2017, p. 30.

[13].       For information on the link between methamphetamine use and crime see: S Goldsmid and M Willis, ‘Methamphetamine use and acquisitive crime: evidence of a relationship’, Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice, 516, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, October 2016.

[14].       T Trimingham and G Vumbaca, ‘Drug testing the dole queue won't help make it shorter’, Huffington Post, 10 May 2017.

[15].       P Whiteford, ‘Budget 2017: welfare changes stigmatise recipients and are sitting on shaky ground’, The Conversation, 11 May 2017.


All online articles accessed May 2017. 

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