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Senate Report Urges Passing Drug Testing Bill, Despite Widespread Expert Opposition

'Unanimous' expert criticism, but the plan is going ahead anyway.
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Despite widespread opposition from medical and social experts, a Senate inquiry into the Government's controversial welfare drug testing trial has recommended the plan go ahead.

Over several months, a panel of seven senators -- four from the government, two from Labor and one from the Greens -- analysed the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017, which contained a suite of welfare measures announced in the May federal budget including changes to some welfare payments, the ceasing of some lesser-used payments and streamlining them into broader categories. And most notably, the Government's plan to drug test 5000 people on Newstart and Youth Allowance payments.

The three sites have been announced in recent weeks as Logan, Bankstown and Mandurah, with welfare recipients to be randomly tested for drugs including marijuana, ecstasy and amphetamines. Just one positive drug test will place that person on income management, where 80 percent of their payments will be quarantined on the cashless debit card, leaving that person with access to as little as $53 in cash each week. A second positive test will force that person into mandatory drug treatment programs.

The plan has been thoroughly rubbished by drug experts, with a swathe of evidence of similar programs overseas having very limited success, as well as proving to be expensive and ineffective. Medical, drug, addiction and social welfare experts have savaged the idea as cruel, unnecessary and indeed counter-productive. Medical and welfare professionals fear the clampdown on payments will lead to spikes in crime as welfare clients try to find new ways of obtaining cash, and increases in family violence as domestic situations are placed under further strain.

However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Liberal-majority Senate committee recommended that the Government's plan go ahead.

The report noted opposition to the drug testing plan on grounds of a lack of evidence supporting similar plans, the cost and reliability of testing, the availability of treatment services and the income management provisions. However, in response to criticisms raised by the Greens that similar welfare drug testing plans had not met success overseas, the Government senators said, "This trial is not about penalising jobseekers with drug abuse issues. It is about finding new and better ways of identifying these jobseekers and ensuring they are referred to the support and treatment they need".

Government senators said they were not convinced by arguments that drug users may switch to other, more dangerous drugs that were not tested for, such as synthetic cannabis or heroin.

In a dissenting report penned by the Labor members of the committee, the criticisms from drug experts and the social welfare sector were raised, including the University of New South Wales, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians Chapter of Addiction Medicine, St Vincent's Health Australia, Rural Doctors Association of Australia and the Ted Noffs Foundation.

Labor's three senators noted the "unanimous" opposition from these voices as well as concerns from the drug treatment sector that they were not equipped to deal with a sudden influx of new clients, and criticised the "lack of evidence" to support the drug testing trial.

"The Committee heard that there is already insufficient treatment available to Australians who are seeking treatment for substance abuse issues, and that the Government's proposals are likely to exacerbate this issue," the Labor report read.

"Labor senators on this Committee are deeply troubled by revelations that the Department of Social Services does not know the length of existing waiting lists for drug and alcohol treatment in the three sites for the Government's drug testing trial."

Greens senator Rachel Siewert, the seventh member of the committee, also raised serious issues with the drug testing plan.

"The Australian Greens are deeply concerned by the Government's repeated rejection of the expertise and evidence given by stakeholders in their continued pursuit of harsh cuts to income support," she wrote in her own dissenting report.

"Drug testing and changes to claim provisions could have significant flow on impacts resulting in homelessness and negative mental and physical health outcomes."

"This measure fails to understand, and indeed actively ignores the medical nature of addiction and the complex biological, psychological and social underpinnings of drug addiction. Placing people on income management or withholding payments for people who test positive to illicit drugs if they don't comply will not help them to recover from addiction or to stop using drugs, but rather further isolate and stigmatise them."

The Government is committed to pushing forward with the plan, which is slated to begin from early next year, but faces stiff opposition to pass the legislation through the Senate. Both Labor and the Greens oppose the plan, meaning the Government would need to corral the support of almost the entire Senate crossbench.

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