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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
A positive result on a drug screen usually requires a follow up test to confirm
the result. 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).
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
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
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.
Inappropriate treatment of
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
However, the Government may argue that the measure is
justified on the grounds that using taxpayers’ money to pay for illicit drugs
Cutting off access to cash may
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. A recent evaluation of
the card failed to find any evidence of an increase in crime due to the loss of
access to cash.
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
Effectiveness of compulsory
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’.
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.
The Government has not yet made any announcement about how
the trials will be evaluated.
Department of Social Services (DSS), Welfare
reform—2017 Budget, Factsheet, DSS, Canberra, May 2017, p. 3
Ibid., p. 3.
S Martin, ‘Crackdown
in jobless hot spots flush with drugs’, The Australian, 11 May 2017.
Ibid. and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, National
wastewater drug monitoring program, Report 1, March 2017.
Library of New South Wales, ‘What is
mobile drug testing?’, Druginfo website, 11 April 2017.
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.
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.
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.
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
S Morrison (Treasurer), Interview
Alice Workman, Buzzfeed, transcript, 11 May 2017.
J Gothe-Snape, ‘Crime
wave fear at welfare card’, The Advertiser, 19 February 2016.
Orima Research, Cashless
Debit Card Trial Evaluation: Wave 1 interim evaluation report, Orima
Research, February 2017, p. 30.
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.
T Trimingham and G Vumbaca, ‘Drug
testing the dole queue won't help make it shorter’, Huffington Post,
10 May 2017.
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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