Briefing: Drug-testing income support recipients (Updated September 2019)


The St Vincent de Paul Society continues to oppose 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 the Morrison Government is proposing?

In late 2017, the Coalition Government attempted to pass a Welfare Reform Bill that included drug-testing of people on income support. The Bill stalled twice in the Senate, amid concerns about unfairness, before it lapsed at the end of the last Parliament.

The Government now intends to reintroduce the Bill which, if passed, will see drug-testing trialled for two years for around 5000 new recipients of Newstart and Youth Allowance (other) in Canterbury-Bankstown (NSW), Logan (Qld) and Mandurah (WA).

Anyone testing positive will be placed on income management for two years and will be tested again 25 days later. After a second positive test, they will be referred to a doctor and must undertake any suggested treatment, and/or further subsequent tests, which may form part of their job plan.

Anyone testing positive who refuses to participate in treatment will no longer be able to use their drug condition as a mutual obligation exemption and may face financial penalties.

Refusal to submit to the drug test will result in the withdrawal of income support.

The Government is yet to reveal the full cost to implement the drug testing trial.

Do most people who receive income support use illicit drugs?

No – most people who receive income support do not use illicit drugs.

Around half of Newstart recipients are aged 45 and over and, according to the 2016 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) National Drug Strategy Household Survey, have some of the lowest rates of illicit drug use.

If this trial goes ahead, most people tested will never have used hard drugs. For example, a larger percentage of unemployed people have never used any illicit drug compared to employed people (57.1% compared to 48.8%) (AIHW, National Drug Household Survey, Ch.8 Specific Population Groups, Table 8.5, Drug use by employment status ).

In fact, more employed people have recently used cocaine than unemployed people (3.8% compared to 2.4%) and the percentage of ecstasy use for both groups is the same (at 2.9%). (AIHW, National Drug Household Survey, Ch Specific Population Groups, Table 8.5, Drug use by employment status).

Methamphetamine usage is one of the major targets of the trial. While unemployed people are more likely than employed people to have recently used methamphetamine, this is less than 5% of the unemployed population. And 90% of unemployed people have never used them. While methamphetamine usage is a serious health problem, it does not indicate wide-spread wastage of income support payments on 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?

Dr Moy, Chair of the Australian Medical Association’s Ethics and Medico-Legal Committee has stated that “the trial penalises and stigmatises those with an addiction… fails to treat their condition as a health issue and …there is no evidence from international trials that this approach works.” Dr Moy is concerned that alcohol and drug services are not resourced to provide the long-term care needed to treat and rehabilitate those with drug dependency. This will simply add pressure to a service system that is already overstretched.  

Professor Ritter, Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program UNSW, has stated that the $10 million in funding to increase alcohol and other drug services in the three sites is inadequate. Funding of alcohol and other drug services needs to double, with an additional $1.2 billion needed to fill the current unmet need of 500,000 people. Rather than wasting resources drug testing everyone on Newstart and Youth Allowance, the money would be much better spent increasing alcohol and other drug services for voluntary clients. The policy is paternalistic, based on the premise that people cannot make decisions for themselves and “it will increase the stigma for those with alcohol and other drug dependency, making them less able to seek the help they need.” The facilities, infrastructure and workforce are not available to meet this demand. The trial will most likely result in voluntary clients being removed from services to make way for mandatory clients. (ABC, Radio National, 11 Sept 2019)

In its 2017 submission to the Senate on the previous Welfare Reform Bill, the Royal Australian College of Physicians 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 “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.”

In its previous submission to the Welfare Reform Bill, the Australian Medical Association raised a number of concerns about the drug testing trial. These included:

  • 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.

In the previous attempt to introduce the Welfare Reform Bill Minister Porter said, “The community has a right to expect that taxpayer-funded welfare payments are not being used to fund drug and alcohol addiction.”

A similar sentiment has been expressed by Minister Ruston who said, “Taxpayers expect the government to ensure their money is being spent responsibly and that welfare recipients are using it to put food on the table, send the kids to school and pay the bills rather than on drugs.”

These views imply that all those on income support are illicit drug users and not making responsible decisions. In fact, an increase in Newstart will alleviate many from poverty, particularly single parents.

This Government has consistently and repeatedly tried to cut and restrict income support payments. The St Vincent de Paul Society, along with other welfare and health peak 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.