Briefing: Drug-testing income support recipients

Summary

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.

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.