The Turnbull Government’s war on drugs has begun, as mandatory drug tests for welfare recipients were unveiled in the 2017 budget. Credit: Georgia Clark

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BY GEORGIA CLARK

Welfare recipients are feeling the pressure of the Turnbull Government’s dole crackdown, which ushered a new era in the war on drugs. Last week the Coalition announced stringent new measures, which will see mandatory drug tests roll out across Australia. The measures will see those who test positive for marijuana, cannabis or methamphetamine forced to use the controversial cashless debit card and banned from buying drugs or alcohol.

33-year-old Alex Smith lives with chronic pain and autism and has been clean for 8 years after a spiralling meth addiction. He tells City Hub that marijuana is the only thing that helps him leave the house, and without it he bangs his head.

“I wouldn’t be here today… if it wasn’t for the cannabis I had this morning,” he said. Everyday Alex lives with the side effects of meth use and ADHD medications, and marijuana is the only thing that keeps them at bay. He fears that the government’s crackdown could drive him to desperation and says if deprived of marijuana, “death would be a better option”.

“It’s the wrong way to help people… using fear campaigns and punishing people for their use is no way to give them the reinforcement to get them off [drugs]… it’s going to cause more harm than good,” he said.

Smith fears that the tests, which will initially roll out across a two year period, could force him to exploit loopholes, such as buying merchandise and getting cash refunds to obtain cannabis. The trial will see 5000 new welfare recipients forced to undergo mandatory urine, saliva and hair follicle tests. While some politicians argue that medical use of drugs such as cannabis will shield recipients against quarantined payments, Smith has grave fears that because his doctor hasn’t been able to obtain a licence to prescribe him marijuana, his access could be further compromised under the policy.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi, Greens Member for the NSW Legislative Council, said the policy could create a grey area for medical marijuana users on welfare.

“I am deeply concerned about the potential for people using medical marijuana to get caught up in this as well. We have already seen this clash with drug driving laws here in NSW,” she said.

The move, which is based on a similar model in New Zealand, was met with widespread backlash. Ruth Phillips, Associate Professor in Social Work and Social Studies at the University of Sydney, says the policy is a red herring for the government’s real objective – convincing the public that welfare cuts are justified.

“I do not believe that the objective of the random drug testing proposal is to reduce drug use – rather it is to reduce public concern about the prolonged attack on welfare recipients by conservative governments, which do not believe in welfare or its intrinsic value of addressing issues of poverty and inequality.  It is well-documented that the worst drug abuse in Australia is alcohol, this would be a more effective drug strategy focus,” she said.

It was a sweeping victory for the conservative taxpayer, but some argue it is merely a knee jerk reaction to the war on drugs and an assault on liberties. The Greens are in the process of obtaining legal advice to see whether or not mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients could contravene the Privacy Act.

“The Government has not provided any solid justification for this policy. In fact, such policies have miserably failed when they have been trialled elsewhere. This is a complete waste of time, money and an invasion of people’s privacy,” said Dr Faruqi.

The move would see the government using a profiling tool to test recipients deemed “at risk” of drug use. Those deemed to have medical conditions caused solely by their substance abuse will no longer be eligible for the disability support pension (DSP), preventing about 450 people each year from claiming the pension. Smith fears his plans to go back on the DSP could be thwarted by the crackdown.

In his budget speech the Treasurer Scott Morrison said “we will continue to target welfare abuse to protect our social safety net and ensure it is there for Australia’s most vulnerable, in particular those with disabilities,” he said.

The Prime Minister has said the policy is made “out of love”, but in demonising the most vulnerable members of the community, appears to see placing the blame on them as a solution.

Associate Professor Phillips says the crackdown is highly inequitable and its raison d’etre is contrary to the likely policy outcomes.

“Apart from being highly prejudicial, this move by the government is a kind of backhanded justification to continue to demonize and denigrate people who, for one reason or another, are dependent of welfare…it effectively fulfils the stereotyped idea of welfare cheats – they must be criminals too,” she said.

What was praised by the right as yet another stepping stone to a 2021 surplus is shrouded in mystery.

Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter said the system is “fairer” and that taxpayers have a legitimate expectation not to have welfare exploited. But details of the plan are scant, and a spokesperson of the Department of Social Services said the Government will make further announcements about the trial at an “appropriate time.”

Ryan McGlaughlin, Executive Director at SMART Recovery, says punitive policies such as these keep the drug policy in Australia “broken,” and more investment is needed in relapse programs such as SMART.

“[The policy is a] possible deterrent from obtaining treatment. People may choose to use new and emerging substances that do not show up in drug test, but are more dangerous or use prescription drugs illegally. People may turn towards the black economy to survive (theft, dealing etc.). Children and other family members maybe impacted by the loss of payment or benefits,” he said.

While those who test positive twice will be referred to a doctor for treatment, it is unclear how the government plans to deal with the potential increased pressure on rehab services.

“I have not heard of a clear plan to provide rehab support – there was some suggestion of compulsory treatment but there is no evidence that this would result in assisting people with an addiction,” said Professor Phillips.

While the Liberal Government may be scourged by debt, a crackdown on the vulnerable without extensive support systems being rolled out seems counterintuitive. When asked whether politicians should be tested in an interview with Neil Mitchell, the Prime Minister responded “I’m not sure whether they should be.”