Scott Morrison's federal budget has declared yet another "war on drugs", announcing 5000 new welfare recipients will be required to undergo drug testing. Let's be clear, there is no evidence these measures, which would target some of society's most vulnerable people, would have any social benefit.
Targeting and excluding people who use drugs is a terrible response to what is at its core a public health issue. This idea rests on the discredited view that illicit drug use is a "moral evil" as opposed to something 42 per cent of Australians have done at least once, and that getting tough is the appropriate response.
Social Services Minister Christian Porter believes the new drug testing regime would ensure taxpayers' money is not being used to fund addictions. Photo: Andrew MearesThe evidence tells us social exclusion and punishment are exactly the wrong ways to treat people who experience issues with drug use. Targeting people who use drugs with punishments such as the ones proposed by the Treasurer pushes them further to the margins of society and increases the already heavy stigma associated with illicit drug use. Stigma is a killer. It ensures people seeking treatment have poor access to all forms of health care, including drug treatment. There are no clear benefits to this policy and the implementation of it would be difficult and expensive.
Once the "crackdown" takes effect and we withhold benefits from people who use drugs, what happens next? The consequences to people who use drugs on social welfare may well be catastrophic. The measures have been framed as "aimed at stabilising the lives of people with alcohol and drug abuse problems by encouraging them to participate in ... treatment as part of their Job Plan".
However, despite a recent influx of funding from the federal government, we know we have only about half the number of treatment places needed in Australia. We don't yet know where the trial would take place but people living in rural areas, people who use methamphetamine, single dads and many others have relatively few or no treatment options.
Are we really going to penalise people without ensuring appropriate support is in place? And what of those people who do not take up treatment or who slip up? Even with the best intentions, many people cannot remain completely abstinent. Are these people thrown off benefits and left without income support potentially facing consequences such homelessness and family separations?
Can we ensure families would not be separated for something as commonplace as smoking cannabis? Can we be sure this policy would not accelerate the already disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who are separated? This measure would hit the most vulnerable members of our society the hardest and we need to think hard about the possible consequences before such a trial.
We already know mass drug screening is inequitable. Typically, these sorts of policies do not work with very few detections for a large amount of spending. The evidence from similar measures in the US is clear – people on welfare are no more likely to use drugs than the rest of society, the drug most commonly picked up is cannabis, and the cost of implementing these measures far outweighs any savings.
Furthermore, illicit drugs use is the focus when we know problematic alcohol use is by far the larger issue. Testing for drug use makes it very clear this policy is not being implemented with any real aim of "supporting people to stabilise their lives". If it was, then problematic alcohol use would be addressed.
The "war on drugs" approach taken in this budget will fail in every sense, except possibly as a vote-gathering measure ‒ although its efficacy in this regard remains to be seen. The "tough on drugs" rhetoric and policies increase the harms from drug use and do not lead to an overall reduction in the number of people who use drugs.
We now have a growing consensus among lawmakers, police, health and community workers that harm reduction and treatment are more effective than "crackdowns". This policy would do great harm to vulnerable people and the community must unite to fight its implementation.
Mary Ellen Harrod is the chief executive of the NSW Users and AIDS Association (NUAA) and a board member of the Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL).