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Government’s drug testing trial not the way to help people into treatment

September 2019

If the Federal Government was serious about supporting income support recipients access treatment for their drug and alcohol problems they would not be introducing a drug testing trial, according to one of Australia’s leading experts in addiction medicine, St Vincent’s Health Australia.

“Every major medical and health organisation in Australia has previously opposed this trial – ourselves, the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Kirby Institute, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists – what does that tell you?” said A/Prof Nadine Ezard, Clinical Director of St Vincent’s Sydney’s Alcohol and Drug Unit.

“We’re against it because we know the evidence is not there. We’re against it because our expertise and experience tells us that this isn’t the way to help people into treatment.

“In the face of such overwhelming and universal opposition, why is the government persisting? It’s hard not to conclude that this trial is not about helping people at all, but about making a political point.”

St Vincent’s Health – which is a major provider of alcohol and drug treatment and withdrawal services at its St Vincent’s public hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne – said not only was there a lack of evidence that a trial would work, it would stigmatise people, one of the biggest barriers to people seeking help for their drug problem.

“By clinical definition, people with severe substance use disorders are unable to modify their behaviour, even in the face of known negative consequences,” said A/Prof Ezard.

“In fact, an increase in stigma and anxiety for people with substance use disorders will exacerbate addiction issues rather than address them.

“Threatening people who have a substance abuse disorder – that if they test positive they’ll be placed on income management – is not going to change their behaviour.

“Representatives from St Vincent’s have met with the Government in the past and suggested better ways to identify people who needed help – and offered to work with them on designing a different, clinically-sound approach – and our proposal fell on deaf ears.

“There are existing flags within the welfare payments system that can indicate someone is struggling with their drug and alcohol use and which could be harnessed more effectively to link people to appropriate health services and then onwards to employment.

“Up to 500,000 Australians are currently in desperate need of treatment for their alcohol or other drug problem, but can’t get the help they need – the services just aren’t there or the waiting lists are too long.

“We have been telling the Government repeatedly that if they were serious about helping people into treatment this should be where their efforts are directed, not pursuing this dead-end strategy,” said A/Prof Ezard.

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