The Federal Government is at odds with health groups, community organisations and the Opposition, when it comes to claims about unemployed Australians and drug use

From the beginning of 2018, the Government intends to drug test around 5,000 new recipients of Newstart and Youth Allowance welfare support as part of a two-year trial.

The proposed trial locations are Canterbury-Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah.

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.

With the program expected to roll out across three trial sites very soon, the debate continues over whether this policy will do more harm than good.

The statistics on which the policy is based, including whether welfare recipients are more likely to use illicit drugs, are also under debate.

According to the Minister for Social Services Christian Porter, figures from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 show unemployed people are up to three times more likely to use drugs.

Minister Porter quotes Labor’s Shadow Minister for Human Services, Linda Burney as saying that ”the evidence is very clear that there is not a higher incidence of drug use amongst people that are seeking employment”.

Minister Burney is also quoted as saying there is no evidence that welfare recipients are more likely to use ice on Sky News in September.

The St Vincent De Paul Society has released a policy briefing this week, stating that: “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”.

fact check

So, what are the facts? Do unemployed Australians use more illicit drugs?

According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016, the full findings of which were released in late September this year, 23.6% of unemployed people had used illicit drugs of any kind compared with 17.6% of employed people.

It is important to note that employment status was not the only defining factor for higher levels of illicit drug use.

Based on the same statistics, other characteristics that increased the chances of illicit drug use in the past year included: living in remote/very remote area (24.8%); Indigenous status (27%); and homosexual/bisexual status (41.7%).

Unemployed people were more likely than employed people to use cannabis and meth/amphetamines, but less likely to use cocaine.

Meth/amphetamine use was 3.1 times higher among unemployed people than employed people (4.6% used in the past year compared to 1.5%).

This is a rise from 2013, when unemployed people were 2.4 times more likely to use meth/amphetamines.

People who are unable to work are also more likely to use drugs such as cannabis and meth/amphetamines, including much higher rates of daily smoking.

However use of ecstasy and cocaine is much lower in this group than the rest of the population.

Testable drugs in the government trial will include methamphetamine, ecstasy, cannabis and opioids among others.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 points out that a lower proportion of employed people and a higher proportion of unemployed people were captured in the sample.

The survey also reveals that the proportion of people experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress is increasing among recent illicit drug users—currently at 22%.

This rate is more than twice as high compared to the rest of the population (those who had not used an illicit drug in the past 12 months).

What does this mean for drug testing?

While latest statistics show that unemployed people and people who are unable to work are more likely to use some illicit drugs—in addition to other populations—the question remains whether the policy of drug testing welfare recipients will actually make any positive difference in this population.

Many organisations have spoken out against the policy.

“There is no evidence that mandatory drug testing has any positive effects,” says St Vincent De Paul.

“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.”

The organisation also argues that while Minister Porter’s assertions that unemployed people use more meth/amphetimes is “technically correct, it gives the misleading impression that methamphetamines are widely used among unemployed people”.

While the difference in meth/amphetamine use between unemployed and employed persons “is undoubtedly a serious health problem, it does not indicate wide spread wastage of income support payments on drugs”, says St Vincent De Paul.

“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.

“This government has consistently and repeatedly tried to cut and restrict income support payments. This so-called trial is simply another attempt to restrict payments, whilst harassing the people who need them.”

The trial simply won’t work, says Australian Medical Association President Dr Michael Gannon.

“The aspiration of Minister Porter, the aspiration of his Department, I’m sure the aspiration of everyone in this room is for people on welfare to, wherever possible, return to a productive life in the workforce,” he said when the trial was first announced.

“If you discriminate against them, if you impair their return to full functioning by labelling them as a drug user, then you impair their ability to get their life back on track.”

The Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP) in a submission to the Senate stated that the proposed drug testing regime “is not supported by current evidence”.

Professor Adrian Reynolds, President of the RACP’s Addiction Medicine Chapter told the Senate that the Chapter is “quite honestly at a loss to see why a drug testing trial is considered a necessary or effective way to address these issues”.

“Addiction medicine specialists in the drug and alcohol sector more generally have not been properly consulted on these measures. We were surprised by these measures,” said Professor Reynolds.

“Our analysis and advice is that the measures will be costly and ineffective and that government should consult with the sector on the development of evidence-based solutions to prevent and better address substance use disorders and increase the availability of treatment services across the nation.”

In a report to the Senate, the Australian Greens have submitted that the drug testing measure “fails to understand, and indeed actively ignores the medical nature of addiction and the complex biological, psychological and social underpinnings of drug addiction.

“Placing people on income management or withholding payments for people who test positive to illicit drugs if they don’t comply will not help them to recover from addiction or to stop using drugs, but rather further isolate and stigmatise them,” say the Greens.

Labor Senators also shared their view “that the proposed drug trials should not proceed in the face of overwhelming opposition from addiction medicine specialists and other experts.”