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Don't humiliate Newstart applicants with drug test - it's no way to tackle addiction

Toby Hall – Sydney Morning Herald
September 2019

The stories emerging from the NSW "ice" inquiry – of desperate individuals and families unable to get help for their drug problems – are simply harrowing.

In Moree, 50,000 needles were found in the city’s garbage tip for a town of just over 13,000 people, yet the closest treatment service is three hours away.

In Broken Hill, 17 children have been placed in out-of-home care in the past 18 months because of family drug use; the rate of methamphetamine use is almost four times the NSW average, but the city doesn’t have a single detox service. The nearest rehabilitation service for families is 12 hours' drive away on the state’s Central Coast.

The same distressing stories can be found in every town in Australia: people literally dying for help, but unable to get treatment because the services just aren’t there or the waiting lists are too long.

It’s a genuine national emergency – up to 500,000 Australians are said to be in this situation – and yet what has been the federal government’s response? It launches its third effort in two years to introduce a $10 million discredited drug-testing trial for new recipients of Newstart and the youth allowance.

Given the catastrophe of alcohol and other drugs unfolding across Australia, particularly in our regional and remote centres, it’s a response that beggars belief.

The government says it’s a legitimate effort to help people with drug problems access treatment and find a job. But every major medical, health and community welfare organisation in Australia has opposed the initiative and said there are better ways.

Indeed, when the government began down this path in 2017, we met the then social service minister’s office and pointed out that there were existing flags within the welfare payment system that could indicate if someone was struggling with their drug and alcohol use, and which could be used to link people to treatment services and onwards to employment.

And we could do this without any of the "drug testing" fanfare – without humiliating someone applying for Newstart for the first time.

But our proposal fell on deaf ears because the visibility of "cracking down" on income support recipients seems to be the entire point. And as such, it’s hard not to conclude there is very little in this trial that is genuinely about helping people.

There is not one shred of evidence – here or overseas – that shows compulsory drug testing works to help someone on a path to beating their drug problem in the long term. There’s equally been no clinical input in developing this policy. Any "consultation" has occurred only after the government announced its intentions.

By clinical definition, people experiencing addiction are unable to modify their behaviour, even if they know there are going to be negative consequences. That includes – as would occur under this policy – being placed on income management in the event of a positive drug test.

Even if the government was sincere, this policy would be counter-productive because it stigmatises people. We know stigmatisation is one of the biggest barriers to people asking for help. Any increase in stigma and anxiety for people with substance-use disorders will exacerbate their addiction rather than help them.

There’s also the irony that it ignores the fact that alcohol is by far Australia’s biggest cause of substance-related harm, and the most significant contributor to lost productivity and unemployment.

Half a million Australians with alcohol and drug problems are in desperate need of help.

I implore the Prime Minister: that’s where your government’s efforts should be directed, not this dead-end strategy.