Briefing: Drug-testing income support recipients


The St Vincent de Paul Society opposes drug testing of people who receive income support. There is no evidence that mandatory drug testing has any positive effects. It is expensive, discriminatory and stigmatising and does not remove disadvantage. It deflects attention from underlying structural factors that drive inequality and poverty, while scapegoating people who receive income support.

What is the drug-testing trial that the Government is proposing?

The Government intends to drug test around 5000 new recipients of Newstart and Youth Allowance (other) as part of a two-year trial. Canterbury-Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah are the sites in which the drug-testing trial is proposed to occur. Initially, this trial was to commence in February 2018. The legislation to implement the trial, however, is yet to be passed by the Senate. 

Refusal to submit to the drug test will result in the cancellation of payments.

A person who tests positive once will be automatically placed on income management for two years. Those who test positive once will be tested again 25 days later. If they test positive on a second occasion, they will be referred to a doctor and must undertake any suggested treatment or agree to repeated tests if they are to continue to receive income support. Those who test positive a second time will normally have the costs of the drug tests deducted from their regular support payments.

Do most people who receive income support use illicit drugs?

No – most people who receive income support do not use illicit drugs, and there is no evidence that receiving income support is a cause of drug dependency or use.

For example, according to the 2013 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare National Drug Strategy Household Survey, less than 6% of unemployed persons had used methamphetamines recently and 90 % had never used them. (Methamphetamine usage is one of the major targets of the trial.)

If this trial goes ahead, most people tested will never have used hard drugs. We already know that many of the processes people need to go through to receive income support are unnecessarily onerous and deliberately difficult. This trial will add a new layer of stigma for people struggling to find employment.

Will the drug testing trial reduce drug use and addiction among people who are unemployed?

The Royal Australian College of Physicians in a submission to the Senate stated that the proposed drug testing regime “is not supported by current evidence.” They further commented, “It is clear that drug testing regimes are not only expensive but also fail to identify problematic drug use.”

In 2013, the Australian National Council on Drugs, which is a key advisory body on drug policy to the Australian Government, advised that “There is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or for society, and some evidence indicating such a practice could have high social and economic costs.”

The National Drug Research Institute concluded that the proposed drug testing trial “is not based on reliable research, and there are no grounds for adopting it as a measure to reduce alcohol or other drug use or related harm. Instead it has the potential to increase harm, including stigma, marginalisation and poverty.”

The Australian Medical Association has raised a number of concerns about the drug testing trial. These include:

  • an insufficient distinction between people with substance dependence and those who are occasional or one-off drug users;
  • a lack of any additional funding commitments for drug interventions to help people referred because of the testing at a time when demand for treatment in Australia already outweighs availability of services;
  • the potential for an increase in criminal activity because of the trial and greater incarceration rates for people who need drug treatment;
  • the lack of costing for the drug testing measures;
  • the potential for a treating medical practitioner’s diagnosis and advice to be disregarded by medically unqualified people or agencies;
  • and the lack of a clear evaluation framework for an intervention whose efficacy has not previously been proven.
Is there another agenda in this drug trial?

When a government introduces a measure that will be expensive and which the evidence indicates will not work in the way that the government says it will, it is reasonable to ask is there another agenda.

Minister Porter in his speech introducing the Bill that would allow the drug testing trial said, “The community has a right to expect that taxpayer-funded welfare payments are not being used to fund drug and alcohol addiction.” He used the statistic from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) that unemployed persons were 2.4 times more likely to use drugs such as methamphetamine than those who were employed. While technically correct, it gives the misleading impression that methamphetamines are widely used among unemployed people. The underlying figures (Supplementary data tables: Specific population group tables. Table 8.3) from the AIHW on which Minister Porter relied indicate that 5.6% of unemployed persons were a recent user of methamphetamines compared to 2.3% of employed persons. While this is undoubtedly a serious health problem, it does not indicate wide spread wastage of income support payments on drugs.

This government has consistently and repeatedly tried to cut and restrict income support payments. The St Vincent de Paul Society and other community organisations have consistently opposed those cuts. This so-called trial is simply another attempt to restrict payments, whilst harassing the people who need them.

It also appears to be part of a wider agenda to blame people receiving income support for not being able to find work. This puts the blame for unemployment on those who are the victims of a system that is not currently producing enough paid jobs for everyone. Rather than blaming unemployed people, governments need to be working with the community and the unemployed to create more paid work and more real pathways to employment.