Photo: Social Services Minister Christian Porter says that there’s “lots of evidence” that mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients can help drug users come off welfare payments and move into jobs. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)
The Federal Government has introduced legislation for a trial of compulsory drug tests for people on the dole.
The stated aim is twofold: to help unemployed people with drug problems receive treatment and find jobs, and to address community concerns that public money, through welfare payments, is being spent on illicit substances.
Social Services Minister Christian Porter is confident that the trial would achieve its first goal.
“Evidence shows that mandated drug testing and treatment can actually have a pretty strong behavioural effect,” he told ABC’s AM program.
He also told ABC News Breakfast: “There’s lots of evidence that suggests that behavioural change can grow around drug testing regimes.”
Is there a lot of evidence that mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients can help drug users come off welfare payments and move into jobs? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Mr Porter’s claim is wishful thinking.
Of six reports put forward by Mr Porter’s office in defence of his claim, only two specifically relate to drug testing of welfare recipients and both strongly reject it as a viable strategy.
The other four relate to the drug treatment of offenders in the criminal justice system.
Experts say that, rather than lots of evidence, there is no evidence, here or overseas, to show that mandatory testing will help unemployed drug addicts receive treatment and find jobs.
How would the proposed drug trials work?
If legislation currently before the Parliament passes, the Turnbull Government plans to introduce a two-year drug testing trial for 5000 people in three locations: Canterbury-Bankstown (NSW), Logan (QLD) and Mandurah (WA).
From January 1, 2018, unemployed people newly claiming Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance would have to agree to be tested in order to start receiving their payments.
They could then be selected for random testing of illicit drugs, including ice (methamphetamine), ecstasy and marijuana.
Those refusing to take the test would have their welfare payments cancelled immediately.
People who tested positive for drugs would be placed on an income management program for the duration of the trial.
As a consequence, 20 per cent of their welfare payment would be available in cash, with the remaining 80 per cent only accessible through a so-called BasicsCard.
The card would quarantine the bulk of the person’s payment for essentials such as food and rent, and for bills from approved providers.
The aim is to stop cash being available to unemployed people to buy illicit drugs.
Under the scheme, a second drug test would be scheduled within 25 days. Anyone testing positive a second time would then be referred to a privately contracted medical professional who would assess them and identify treatment options.
Anyone who refused to take the second test would have their payments cancelled.
The explanatory memorandum to the legislation says the aim of the trial “is to improve a recipient’s capacity to find employment or participate in education or training by identifying people with drug use issues and assisting them to undertake treatment”.
It says: “Substance abuse is a major barrier to social and economic participation and is not consistent with community expectations around receiving taxpayer funded welfare payments.”
The basis for the claim
Fact Check asked Mr Porter for the evidence he was relying upon for his claim. His office referred to six reports, only two of which related to drug testing of welfare recipients.
The others related to mandatory treatment of offenders within the criminal justice system.
In his News Breakfast interview, Mr Porter made it clear his claim related to welfare recipients.
“There’s lots of evidence that says when you mandate — so when you compel people into treatment programs — that that can have a positive result in terms of their treatment and supports for drug problems. So, when you look at internationally available evidence, this represents a common sense approach, and it’s an approach basically designed to identify people who have this problem and use the welfare system as a lever to require them to move into treatment.”
In another interview with ABC TV’s 7.30 program, he said at least one report showed “that when you mandate treatment, that can have very positive effects in terms of job search and job outcomes”.
The two relevant reports identified by Mr Porter’s office are a 2000 Canadian review of a similar drug testing proposal in Ontario and a 2013 Australian position paper on the drug testing of welfare recipients.
The Canadian review
In 2000, the Conservative Party provincial government of Ontario had proposed drug testing welfare recipients.
Those who tested positive would be asked to receive treatment and stop taking drugs or risk losing their benefits.
Addiction and mental health experts reviewed the proposal. They found mandatory drug testing was not appropriate.
Their paper, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2001, states that such a scheme could increase crime and health problems and be legally challenged as a violation of human rights.
Furthermore, it says drug testing cannot be used to determine substance abuse or dependence; it could undermine an unemployed person’s relationship with their case manager, and be very expensive.
People who had no desire to change their behaviour could also cause disruption for those who were receiving treatment.
The report acknowledges indirect evidence cited in the Canadian review suggesting that treatment can increase the employability of people with drug problems, and that the mandatory nature of the provision would likely increase treatment uptake.
But it examines the flaws in the rationale for drug testing welfare recipients at greater length.
It concludes: “These authors do not believe that either drug testing of welfare recipients or removal of welfare benefits for people who refuse treatment, or experience relapse, is advisable.”
The Australian position paper
A position paper from the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD), published in 2013, examined the costs and benefits of drug testing welfare beneficiaries, among other groups.
Its conclusion is unequivocal:
“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 would have high social and economic costs.
“In addition, there would be serious ethical and legal problems in implementing such a program in Australia. Drug testing of welfare beneficiaries ought not to be considered.”
The council’s paper says there is a lack of evidence available on the effectiveness of drug testing welfare beneficiaries in deterring drug use, in increasing employment participation or in reducing welfare spending.
“There is no clear evidence that drug use in and of itself is a barrier to employment for a significant proportion of the people — nor that it is a more significant barrier than other factors, such as transport problems, mental or physical health problems, or discrimination,” it said.
It refers to a program of drug testing welfare recipients in the US state of Florida in 2011, which operated for four months before enabling legislation was overturned.
Of the 4,086 people tested, 2.6 per cent tested positive for drugs, mostly marijuana.
The estimated cost of the program was $118,140, which was $45,000 more than the state would have paid in benefits to those people whose payments were discontinued after testing positive.
In its concluding remarks, the paper says the ANCD “believes drug testing of welfare beneficiaries is based on a faulty rationale and incorrect assumptions about people who use drugs, the nature of drug dependence and the effects of drug testing”.
It also makes the point that widespread adoption of drug testing should not occur unless, or until, a stronger evidence base emerges supporting its effectiveness.
Reports that focus on offenders in the criminal justice system
All four focus on mandatory treatment of offenders within the criminal justice system.
In summary, they find mandatory treatment achieved positive health outcomes, increased the proportion of people in employment and reduced recidivism.
But the reports provide no evidence to support mandatory drug testing and treatment of welfare recipients and are therefore not relevant to Mr Porter’s claim.
What the experts say
Associate Professor Nadine Ezard, the clinical director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, told Fact Check drug testing people on the dole would likely do more harm than good, possibly exacerbating crime and health problems and further stigmatising a vulnerable group.
“We don’t think there is any evidence that mandatory drug testing through the welfare system will actually be effective for employment engagement,” she said.
Using evidence of positive outcomes in the drug treatment of offenders in the criminal justice system to support a trial for drug testing welfare recipients, was a “big leap”, she said.
She added that results of a drug test did not necessarily indicate a person’s capacity for work.
Cannabis, for example, could be detected in a test weeks after it was used, but this was not a sound indicator of someone’s capacity to work.
“We see many people that are holding down quite high-functioning jobs that are using methamphetamine regularly, so the relationship between work capacity and a positive test for those drugs is not clear,” she said.
Associate Professor Adrian Reynolds, the president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine, told the senate committee examining the legislation for the drug trial (among other welfare reforms) that the college was “at a loss” to see why the trial was necessary, given that it was not the best way to identify those with drug problems.
“It is concerning that such clear and unambiguous advice from a leading expert advisory group is going unheeded and … that policy measures are being proposed that go directly against its counsel,” the college says.
Professor Alison Ritter, the director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, told Fact Check proceeding without an evidence base was not unique.
She said a pilot of a medically supervised injecting centre in Kings Cross went ahead without evidence to support it and, 12 years on, evaluation studies had shown the scheme had saved lives and increased referrals into treatment.
But the drug testing trial of welfare recipients was different, she said.
Because the proposed trial would be compulsory for welfare recipients, and have the potential to increase poverty, as well as lead to other adverse outcomes, there was a greater level of accountability required of the Government.
“The requirement for the evidence base is higher in this particular policy than it is in other policy areas,” she said.
Professor Ritter also made the point that compulsory treatment for offenders in drug courts was very different to the mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients.
Unlike people within the criminal justice system, who were given a choice of treatment or jail, people participating in the trial would have to either agree to drug testing and treatment or have their welfare benefits cut.
“These [welfare recipients] are not people who have been arrested by the police and charged with a criminal offence … so you can’t use the evidence from drug courts to say that compulsory treatment works,” she said.
Applying the evidence from the drug courts to the drug testing of welfare recipients “completely misrepresents the situation”.
What the Senate heard
The Government-dominated Senate committee examining the drug testing legislation has recommended the bill be passed, although it noted that “critics of the introduction of a drug testing trial have stated that there is no evidence that drug testing will achieve the desired outcome”.
Also, submissions had referred to drug testing of welfare recipients in the US and New Zealand “where only small numbers of those tested returned positive test results”.
In a footnote, the committee acknowledged that these views were contained in 10 submissions, made by the Australian Medical Association, Uniting Communities, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UnitingCare Australia, Catholic Social Services Australia and Catholic Health Australia, Mission Australia, 360 Edge, the Salvation Army, the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
Labor and the Greens issued dissenting reports, both noting testimony from expert witnesses about the lack of evidence about drug trials.
Labor’s report said submissions from the following groups also pointed to the lack of evidence supporting drug testing income support recipients as a key point of concern: UnitingCare, 360Edge, Catholic Social Services Australia and Catholic Health Australia, The Kirby Institute; Cohealth; National Drug Research Institute; Australian Drug Law Reform Initiative; Australian Federation of Aids Organisations; Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League; Western Australian Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies; Public Health Association Agency; and Dr Alex Wodak.
- Christian Porter, Interview, ABC AM, August 22, 2017
- Christian Porter, Interview transcript, ABC News Breakfast, August 22, 2017
- Christian Porter, Interview, ABC 7:30, August 22, 2017
- Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017
- Drug Testing Trial Fact Sheet, Department of Social Services, August 2017
- BasicsCard, Department of Human Services
- Explanatory memorandum, Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017
- Drug testing and mandatory treatment for welfare recipients, International Journal of Drug Policy, July 13, 2001
- Australian National Council on Drugs position paper, August, 2013
- The Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) Program: health outcomes, NSW Health, 2007
- Evaluation of the Drug Court of Victoria, Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, December 18, 2014
- Mandatory treatment and perceptions of treatment effectiveness, Crime and Misconduct Commission, October 7, 2008
- The effectiveness of Australia’s drug courts, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 2016
- Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Royal Australasian College of Physicians
- Senate Committee report on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017