The federal government’s proposed drug testing trial for selected unemployment benefits claimants has been greeted with depressingly predictable objections from the usual suspects. The two year trial commencing in 2018 will target approximately five thousand Newstart recipients. Individuals testing positive will trigger a range of outcomes including a limiting of the amount of welfare available to them as cash, repeat drug testing, and/or referral to a clinician for a treatment activity.
In a frenzied bout of pearl-clutching, head of the AMA Michael Gannon has characterised the measures as ‘nasty’ and ‘unfair’. Both the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians vigorously oppose the trial. The Australian Council of Social Service’s chief executive Cassandra Goldie believes the testing is ‘invasive and demeaning’. Premier Daniel Andrews won’t even allow the trial to take place in Victoria. The list of naysayers is seemingly endless. It’s almost as if they don’t want the trial to succeed.
It is no exaggeration that we are in the midst of an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse, especially in our poorer suburbs. Ice use is associated with various psychiatric harms including intoxication, withdrawal, violent changes to mood and behavior, and at worst chronic psychosis. In south west Sydney for example, ice-related hospitalisations have jumped by more than two thousand per cent in the past seven years. Of course we need more drug and alcohol services, but these are unlikely to be effective unless there are sufficiently powerful incentives for people to participate in detox and rehabilitation.
Whilst the outcry about the reforms from legal types and social justice warriors is understandable, the incuriousness of the medical profession about the potential effectiveness of a local trial is more perplexing. It is strange that those at the pointy end of treating substance abuse and related psychiatric disorders are not more enthusiastic about exploring a different approach to a status-quo which is clearly not working. It is well recognised that drug testing of doctors, nurses, miners and pilots is successful because of the potentially career-ending downsides to being caught. Motorists must submit to random alcohol testing and are penalised heavily if they fail. I’m sure we can all recall instances where the fear of being breathalysed (an improbable but nerve-racking occurrence) has dissuaded us from having that second drink. Accepted wisdom is that resources should be preferentially directed at providing more specialist services; a kind of ‘build it and they will come’ approach. But widespread testing and better funded services are not mutually exclusive ventures. Carrots and sticks can be used in conjunction.
Experts are quick to point out that welfare drug testing has ‘failed’ overseas. They cite US and New Zealand programs where only a tiny proportion of people who were tested yielded positive results. This proves, they say, that testing is too inefficient and costly to be worthwhile (it’s funny how progressives suddenly become concerned with fiscal prudence when faced with funding ideas that deviate from the narrative). Programs in the US differ enough from ours in scope and substance that direct comparisons are spurious. In New Zealand, the scheme which was originally similar to our own was scaled back to require testing only of those who had been already been offered employment and who were about to commence work.
If conducted rigorously, a trial of this nature should generate demographic data that will allow future iterations of the scheme to more accurately identify ‘at risk’ populations. For example, it might turn out that only testing males of a certain age range is necessary to capture the bulk of drug users. Advances in technology mean that testing is becoming cheaper and more sophisticated with less chance of false positives. No test will ever be perfect, and it is true that most testing does not provide information about patterns of use. A drug-screening instrument does not need to do this to satisfy its primary purpose.
Critics warn that drug testing will force people into lives of crime if their welfare is jeopardised. Aside from the fact that people are not going to have their welfare summarily discontinued, the unsettling implication here is that a proportion of those on Newstart are being bribed into not robbing the rest of us. If this is a plausible consequence of tightening up welfare requirements, it speaks more to deficiencies in law enforcement and sentencing. Regardless, I have met plenty of patients on welfare who commit crimes despite their receiving regular handouts. It is often said that poverty causes crime. A few dissenting voices, most notably that of prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple, have questioned this orthodoxy and posit a reverse causality; that crime leads to poverty. Welfare and drug dependencies are mutually reinforcing societal cancers. Addicts are less inclined or able to find work, and the boredom of unemployment can be temporarily alleviated by the stimulation of drug use.
The great Thomas Sowell once opined that progressives begin their approach to social ills from the middle of the story. Indeed the whole notion of harm reduction that underpins current policy is predicated on the idea that a significant percentage of the population will abuse drugs no matter what, just as there are ‘acceptable’, ‘pre-determined levels’ of poverty or crime. If the trial proves successful however, even modestly so, then shibboleths about poverty, crime and drug abuse become susceptible to questioning. Therein lies the core anxiety of the liberal.
The Prime Minister’s assertion that this policy is motivated by ‘love’ might be over-egging the pudding. He is right however to argue for a more just allocation of resources. Government has a moral obligation to ensure that it spends taxpayer money effectively and with some accountability. For too long, the opposite has been true. Politicians and bureaucrats have been largely indifferent to the rights of those who work to finance the welfare behemoth.
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