The Australian Parliament is considering legislation that would establish a two-year trial of randomly drug testing welfare recipients. While Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supports the proposal, the majority of medical professionals in the country have blasted the trial as counterproductive and potentially harmful.
On Aug. 30, the Australian Senate held an inquiry hearing on a bill that would create a trial program for drug testing welfare recipients. If passed, the federal initiative would begin asking for saliva and urine samples from 5,000 recipients in Logan in Queensland, Canterbury-Bankstown in Sydney, and Mandurah in Western Australia.
The trial would begin in early 2018 and last for two years. If the federal government deems the program effective, it would institute random drug tests for welfare recipients throughout the country.
The 5,000 subjects would be tested for narcotics such as heroin, marijuana, MDMA and methamphetamine. If a welfare recipient tests positive for drug use, 80 percent of their federal assistance would be restricted to a so-called "BasicsCard," a cashless card that could only be used to buy essential needs such as groceries or rent.
If a welfare recipient tested positive for drug use twice, they would be required to seek medical treatment for drug addiction. If they declined to do so, their welfare assistance could be discontinued.
On Aug. 23, Australian Minister for Human Services Christian Porter asserted that the trial would be beneficial for welfare recipients.
"This trial is focused entirely on helping job seekers overcome drug problems and to receive the help they need to get on a path towards securing a job and building a better future for themselves and their families," Porter said in an official statement from the Australian Government. "Evidence shows that people who are unemployed can have higher rates of drug use and we all know that using drugs is a barrier to gaining employment."
The proposal has met pushback from several Australian lawmakers and medical groups. Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) chair Hester Wilson asserted that the program could do more harm than good.
"Substance addiction is a complex, chronic relapsing medical condition," Wilson told the New Scientist. "One of the hallmarks is an inability to change behavior despite harm, so punitive approaches don't tend to work ... A BasicsCard might be a good idea for some patients, but it's going to work best if they choose to go on it because they want to change, not when they're forced."
The Victorian government outright rejected hosting the trial when approached by federal lawmakers.
"It simply won't work, and it's cheap, populist nonsense designed to create a smokescreen as to what really drives disadvantage," Victoria Mental Health Minister Martin Foley told "7.30," according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
On Aug. 27, Turnbull defended the program during an interview with "The Program."
"Frankly, do you really want your taxes being spent on drugs?" Turnbull said. "I don't want welfare money being spent on drugs. It is not fair to the taxpayer and it is absolutely not fair, and not going to work -- not helpful -- for the person on welfare. So I think this is a good exercise, it's worthwhile. Australians support it, and we'll see how it goes. It is a trial."
On Aug. 29, 980 Australian health professionals signed an open letter urging the Parliament to reject the drug testing trial, The Guardian reports.
"If we had been consulted, we could have said that people cannot be punished into recovery," the letter stated. "Using drug testing to coerce people into treatments treats drug and alcohol problems as some sort of personal failing -- not the serious health problem it is."