The following article was written by Alex Wodak, who is president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and perhaps Australia’s leading expert and advocate for a different approach to dealing with harm full drug use issues. It was published in the Australian edition of the Guardian (22 August 2017). This is worthwhile reading and the points he raises deserve serious consideration, in any attempt to find answers to what is a complex problem that must ultimately be seen as a health issue. Wodak points out that penalysing the user has brought harm to those targeted and failed to reduce harmful drug use.
‘Drug testing trials for people on income support have been trialled and abandoned in a few countries. In addition to causing significant harm to affected people and the wider community, they came at an enormous cost to the taxpayer.’
In 1986 I was part of a group that resorted to civil disobedience to get needle syringe programs started in Australia. HIV had begun spreading among people who injected drugs in Sydney with a real concern of a major national epidemic. But the NSW government refused to allow even a pilot program. From our office near Sydney’s Kings Cross, we handed out clean needles. Breaking the law and helping to halt an epidemic was better than waiting till the government agreed and risking a nasty epidemic in the meantime.
Fast forward 30 years and I had hoped Australia would have adopted a more compassionate, evidence-based approach to drugs where illicit drugs were seen as mainly a health and social problem rather than just a criminal justice issue. And where governments stood up to the drinks industry. But things aren’t looking good with the government today announcing the first trial site for a new drug testing regime for welfare recipients.
In the May 2017 budget, the Turnbull government handed down a number of changes to our income support system. People with alcohol and drug problems were directly targeted. Plans included stripping people off their disability pensions, removing certain protections for people with alcohol and drug problems, and – perhaps most controversially – instituting a drug testing trial for new income support recipients.
The objective of these policies is as clear as mud. Malcolm Turnbull claimed it will help people get the treatment they need, saying “it’s a policy based on love”. The social services minister, Christian Porter, called the changes a “sacred form of giving”. But another government MP, Andrew Laming, was more open. He said he doesn’t care if it means people turn to crime in their desperation because “they can detox behind bars”!
So what is the government’s objective here? Is it to reduce unemployment supposedly caused by alcohol and drug use? To help connect people to the treatment and support they need but can’t find because it’s rationed? Or is it a heartbreaking example of politicians attacking some of the most vulnerable people in our community for the sake of a few votes? Remember that people who use drugs are somebody’s son or daughter, brother or sister, mum or dad, or boyfriend or girlfriend. Many, through no fault of their own, had a shocking childhood or terrible education and never enjoyed a decent job.
Let’s break down the evidence here. First up, alcohol and drug use plays a minuscule role in unemployment and underemployment. People are locked out of paid work because there is only one job available for every 17 job seekers in this country, according to the Australian Unemployed Workers Union. It’s even worse than that for our young people and those living in regional centres. And for the small number of people who are unable to hold down work due to alcohol and drug problems (unemployed Australians use drugs at a much lower rate than employed Australians), stripping away their income support will do nothing but push them even further into the margins of society.
Porter and others like him who argue that harsh, punitive measures help people with severe alcohol and drug problems seek treatment or suddenly quit using mood-altering drugs haven’t seen what I have witnessed for decades. Addiction medicine specialists, GPs, nurses, and healthcare workers of all stripes will tell you that people struggling with alcohol or drug dependence almost always keep consuming their favourite poison even after they have lost everything – their health, partner, kids, job, property and their freedom (after appearing before a court). The scientific definitions of addiction regard “continuing use despite severe adverse consequences” as a central characteristic of this condition. So ripping income support away from these people is not going to help them recover. People cannot be coerced or punished into treatment. There is a good chance that they will commit more crime or even be pushed to suicide.
Had the Turnbull government consulted experts before unveiling this plan, they would have been advised to drop these measures pronto. Drug testing trials for people on income support have been trialled and abandoned in a few countries. In addition to causing significant harm to affected people and the wider community, they came at an enormous cost to the taxpayer. Isn’t the government supposed to be reining in wasteful spending?
If the government wants to help people with severe alcohol and drug problems it should redirect funding into the proven frontline referral services crying out for more support. If they are indeed trying to connect drug users with employment, they should create more meaningful work in our communities.
But what if all that they’re trying to do is distract their followers from their calamitous polls and appeal to a callous minority?
Australia is better than this. We have tried punishing people struggling with severe drug problems for half a century and it hasn’t worked. When people are down, don’t push them down even further: help them to get up. These proposals are exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.