The head of Australia’s largest youth drug and alcohol rehabilitation service has warned the government’s plan to test welfare recipients will force more people into drug dealing.
“That’s why this is a stupid, stupid idea that is not based on evidence but is based on someone not looking at the literature and pretending they have the answers,” the chief executive of the Ted Noffs Foundation, Matt Noffs, said.
The government has faced significant criticism over its proposal to drug test welfare recipients, which is still before parliament and largely hinges on the support of the Nick Xenophon Team.
The social services minister, Christian Porter, and the human services minister, Alan Tudge, have rejected the views of experts and drug support workers, saying the policy is a trial only and its effectiveness will later be assessed. The government argues it will drive behavioural change among those suffering from drug addiction.
“We are hoping two things out of this. One being that those people who do have a serious problem are identified and do get help,” Tudge said on Wednesday. “Second, that it might just have that behavioural impact, whereby people stop using drugs because they are thinking, ‘Well, you know what, I might just get tested in the near future, I am not going to take it anymore.’”
Noffs likened that thinking to the Reagan-era “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s.
“I can say with authority that that doesn’t work,” Noffs said. “We dropped it in the 1980s and we should leave it there.”
Noffs’s organisation runs a successful drug and crime prevention service in Logan, Queensland, the government’s second trial site for welfare drug testing.
The project, part of the foundation’s Street University initiative, has seen 4,000 young people in the past three years and helped to significantly reduce drug use and crime.
He said the government’s policy, by punishing addiction, would push people away from the welfare system and toward criminality to fund drug use.
“If the claim behind the idea is to get people away from drugs, this is not going to do that,” Noffs said. “It’s the same thing as saying, ‘Say no to drugs.’ The problem with this is that it quite forcefully pushes them into finding criminal, worse ways of scoring their drugs than they already are.”
Noffs said efforts to reduce to the use of ice in the past three years were already working without the need to drug test welfare recipients.
Recent reported use of meth/amphetamine fell from 2.1% of Australians aged 14 or older in 2013 to 1.4% in 2016, although more people were using the drug in its crystalline form.
The use of most other drugs either fell or remained stable over the long-term, except for cannabis and cocaine, which increased slightly.
Cocaine – at its highest level in more than two decades – is considered unlikely to be a key target of the government’s drug testing policy, due to its cost.
Noffs is reluctant to again speak out publicly about the proposal until it’s legislated. He believes the government, by announcing two trial sites in two days this week, was trying to distract from its own problems.
“This is a sloppy magic trick to make everyone pay attention to something else,” he said. “And I’m not even interested in talking about it any more until I’ve seen it legislated.”
The proposal would place anyone failing an initial test on income management – restricting 80% of their welfare payment. Failing a second test would result in a referral to drug treatment.
Failure to engage in the treatment could cause the welfare recipient to have their payments withheld.
The government has also proposed making $10m available for drug treatment services.
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