Welfare drug testing scheme abandoned

addiction illicit drugs dependency

The Government has had to give up on plans to introduce drug testing for welfare recipients after it became clear that the Senate would not pass the proposal

The plan to randomly drug test those receiving social security payments attracted controversy from the beginning, as harm minimisation experts queried its effectiveness in reducing drug use and its impact on vulnerable Australians.

The plan was to randomly test 5,000 people receiving unemployment benefits in three trial locations, and if they tested positive to certain substances – including ice, cannabis, ecstasy and some opioids – to place them on income management.

In early December Social Services Minister Christian Porter told the Australian he would remove the random drug testing trials in a bid to salvage other reforms in the Welfare Reform Bill.

At the time he was locked in negotiations with the Nick Xenophon Team, while Labor and the Greens remained opposed to the drug testing trials.

Last night the scheme was shelved.

“Drug dependence is a health issue,” Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale said following the second reading of the Bill.

“It requires investment and support. It doesn’t require punishment through testing and the threat of the removal of payments.

“What this bill proposed to do was to set up a punitive system, a dangerous system, a system that would actually cause more harm than good.”

He said that forcing people into drug and alcohol did not work, particularly when the area is already under-supplied.

“The Royal Australasian College of Physicians gave the committee the definition of ‘addiction’—it’s a chronic, relapsing disorder. I can tell you, again, from the perspective of someone who has worked in this area, that what that means in practice is that people will often get clean and then they’ll come back in because they have relapsed.

“It’s a chronic, ongoing, relapsing condition. By the time somebody is able to come through the other side of that, they will often have had a number of attempts at getting into treatment—that’s the nature of the condition.

“Anything that you do to make life harder for an individual in those circumstances just serves to make the transition from being drug dependent to actually living a life where you are no longer dependent on that substance much, much harder.”

Health experts including pharmacist and harm minimisation campaigner Angelo Pricolo had told the AJP that the scheme would not work to reduce the harms of illicit drug use.

“Addiction is not a game of baseball. Addiction needs support for the patient, the right setting and often pharmacotherapy,” he said.

“It takes a long time to treat addiction, it doesn’t just go away with the threat of punishment.”

Ruby-Rose O’Halloran, senior campaigner at the left-wing lobby group GetUp congratulated the Senators who opposed the scheme for listening to the advice of health care professionals.

“Forced drug tests are ill-informed, punitive and would have caused significant harm to people struggling with severe alcohol and drug problems. That’s why they were opposed by every major doctors’ group in the country,” she said.

“The GetUp community is calling on the Coalition to respect the advice of doctors and walk away from this scheme completely. Alcohol and drug addiction is a health issue, and it needs to be treated as such with increased funding for proven frontline services.”

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