Doctors Weigh in on Debate Over Drug-Testing Welfare Recipients

The Australian Government has again raised the idea of drug-testing of welfare recipients with proposals for a trial to run for two years across three sites. Recipients who test positive will have 80 percent of their benefit redirected into a cashless debit card which will have restrictions on products able to be purchased. If the recipient tests positive a second time they will be referred to a doctor who will identify treatment options.

Research shows that unemployed people are three times more likely than those with jobs to use amphetamines. According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016, 1 in 5 methamphetamine users used the drug weekly or more often. The trial is will cover around 5,000 Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance recipients and is expected to detect around 150 people who will benefit from increased funding for rehabilitation services. Under the proposed bill, eligible welfare recipient will be tested for a range of substances and the testing will be undertaken using a urine test, a saliva test or a hair follicle test.

More than 700,000 people currently receive Newstart Allowance and Australians aged over 55 represent the highest growth of those claiming unemployment benefits. The proposal has met with a lot of opposition due to concerns about the cost of testing recipients and the lack of success from similar programs in other countries such as the United States and New Zealand.

Australian doctors critical of plan

Many Australian doctors have spoken out about the plan including General Practitioners and addiction medicine specialists, some of whom believe that drug-testing welfare recipients will exacerbate mental health issues. People who are already on the cashless debit card report stigma and feelings of shame. Australian doctors also believe there are a lack of drug treatment facilities available and that the proposed additional $10m funding in the trial sites will not be enough to meet demand.

A similar bill was raised in 2017 but was scrapped after submissions from a number of organisations including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. The Australia Medical Association (AMA) has repeatedly publicly opposed drug-testing of welfare recipients raising concerns that one-off users will be penalised or diverted into programs which won’t benefit them. The Association and many other organisations involved with health and welfare would instead like to see greater funding for drug and alcohol treatment in general.