Federal Budget: drug testing welfare recipients is ineffective policy


Dr Alex Wodak, Australia21 DirectorAustralia21 Director Dr Alex Wodak warns the plan to randomly drug test welfare recipients makes no medical or moral sense. Dr Wodak is Emeritus Consultant with the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney and President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.

Australia’s Federal Budget, announced by the Treasurer on 9 May 2017, included a proposed trial of random drug testing for 5,000 welfare recipients. The drugs targeted would be ecstasy, cannabis and ice.

About 2.7 million Australians are receiving a variety of different types of welfare, not including those on the aged pension. It is estimated 100,000 people receiving welfare (almost 4 per cent) are failing to meet their mutual obligations and 40,000 (nearly 1.5 per cent) are said to be wilfully gaming the system.

Those who come up positive in the random drug tests will be placed on a cashless debit card for their payments, or even have their benefits removed for a period of time.

But it is unclear how that punishment is supposed to:

  • Australia21 - Young man with green hair exhaling from a marijuana bonghelp welfare recipients who fail random testing stop or reduce their drug consumption; or
  • help welfare recipients find gainful employment.

Anti-poverty campaigners and drug users themselves are warning the testing would be both discriminatory and detrimental.

Meanwhile, there will be no testing for alcohol or tobacco, which are responsible for 95% of drug related deaths in Australia. That’s despite alcohol dependence being a major factor in unemployment and impaired productivity.


Drug testing will not provide the community with solutions

Random drug testing is a crude and problematic way of monitoring drug use.

  • It is more likely to identify use of longer acting drugs (such as cannabis) and less likely to identify shorter acting drugs (such as ice and ecstasy).
  • It fails to distinguish between drug consumption in functional people and problematic drug use.

Drug testing has a poor record in modifying consumption in severely drug dependent people.

Australia21 - marijuana joint being litA major characteristic of drug and alcohol dependence is continued consumption despite severe and continuing adverse consequences. Indeed, this characteristic is used in the major definitions of alcohol and drug dependence by the World Health Organisation in its International Classification of Diseases and in the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

So inflicting more punishment on people with severe alcohol and drug problems will achieve very little, if any, behaviour change.


A bad problem made worse

The introduction of drug testing is often followed by people shifting to drugs that are not being tested for. Often these alternatives are more dangerous than the original drugs people were taking.

Australia21 - young woman with hands over faceThus there is a real risk that a bad problem will become a worse problem, at the expense of taxpayers.


More jobs needed, not more punishment

Random drug testing of welfare recipients is unlikely to help them find work.

Average unemployment is now almost 6 per cent. That means there are several job seekers for every vacancy.

Even worse, youth unemployment is several times the average. Young people find it difficult to obtain gainful employment whether or not they have a severe alcohol or drug problem.

While getting more young people into work is a laudable aim, random drug testing would not be an effective  – or cost-effective – way of achieving the objective.

Australia21 - man sitting hunched over


Drug treatment unlikely

Welfare applicants caught by random drug testing may be referred for treatment, but it will not guarantee they get help.

The drug treatment system in Australia is overloaded and underfunded. Unless that crisis is addressed, these people will go to the back of an already long queue.


And the good points?

Australia21 - hands being cuffedThere is one good point: the proposal is to conduct a two year trial with evaluation, rather than establish a new program.

Random drug testing of welfare recipients is set to be another sorry chapter in Australia’s failed and futile attempt to solve our drug problems by relying on punishment. There is overwhelming national and international evidence that the key to reducing substance abuse and minimising harm is providing better funding for treatment, while addressing the underlying social issues that lead to drug dependence.


For a general review of the 2017 Federal Budget, read our report by Australia21 Chair, Paul Barratt.

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