Should welfare recipients lose their benefits if they test positive to drugs?

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In recent years, the suggestion that those on, or applying for, welfare benefits should be forced to undergo drug testing has gained popularity several Western nations.

More than that, it has actually been implemented in some countries including New Zealand and many of the United States.

But to the surprise of lawmakers, the rate of welfare recipients returning positive test in those places has been low – often even lower than the average rates of illegal drug use in the general community.

Based upon those results, some might argue that welfare recipients are even less likely to be using drugs than those in the general community.

But human rights advocates have condemned such testing, saying that it undermines the dignity of those who cannot afford to live without benefits.

It is also argued that taking benefits away from those who are found to be using drugs is counter-productive as it could increase the chance of them committing crimes to support their habits, and might also impact on their family members including children.

It is further argued that those who are highly addicted to drugs cannot be expected to make rational decisions, which is an underlying assumption of the schemes.

The better course, it is said, is to refer habitual drug users to support and rehabilitation programs, rather than stigmatising, alienating and punishing them.

The United States:

Tennessee is one of the United States that has implemented a policy to drug test those on benefits.

To that State’s surprise, the statistics revealed that only a very small number tested positive to drugs.

In fact, out of the 16,017 applications for the Families First cash assistance, just 37 tested positive.

Twenty-five of them were referred to treatment.

The percentage of welfare applicants who failed drug tests in that State actually turned out to be lower than the general population.

Another example is Florida, where only 2.6% of applicants tested positive for drugs, while the rate of illegal drug use in that state is 8%.

Twelve of the United States have implemented such schemes, but the popularity is spreading, with laws currently being introduced in several other states.

In Texas, republicans are trying to push through laws that could see drug users banned from receiving welfare permanently.

Under the proposal, a person who fails two drug tests will not be eligible for government support for several months.

If they fail a third time, they will be ineligible permanently.

Republican State Representative Glen Casada justifies the proposal on the basis that taxpayer money should not be wasted on drug users.

New Zealand:

The New Zealand scheme does not randomly test welfare recipients.

Instead, those who are looking for jobs must submit to any workplace drug test that the prospective employer requires.

Approximately 40% of jobs listed with the government Work and Income Service require applicants to undergo drug tests.

Anyone who fails a job-required test will have to agree to stop taking drugs and pass a clean drug test within 25 days.

If a person fails this second test, they can be stripped of half of their welfare payments (if they have children) or have their payments suspended altogether for 13 weeks (if they don’t).

They are also required to pay for the test if they fail.

The government has justified the move on that basis that previously, there was no incentive for drug users to give up the habit and get a job.

But similar to the US, the idea that those on social welfare are disproportionately on drugs proved to be way off the mark.

The scheme cost over $1 million, but out of an initial 8,001 people sent for drug testing as of July 2014, just 22 tested positive.

The New Zealand and US models have therefore been criticised and ineffective and inefficient.

Could we expect these laws to be coming to Australia?

There was some talk last year by Liberal and National Party MPs that Australia should follow in the footsteps of New Zealand.

For example, Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews was reported to have said that the New Zealand scheme could provide a “guide” for an simplification of the Australian welfare system.

However, both Mr Andrews and the Prime Minister ruled out the scheme later that year.

So the answer looks like, no – at least not anytime soon.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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