The best research available does not support the Turnbull Government’s ‘get tough on welfare drug users’ approach, writes Bill Bush.
You have to admit that having a go at drug users is enticing politics. What pushback could there be against introducing drug testing of welfare payments for those who are likely to use the money to support their habit? The spongers! Impecunious drug users themselves are only too familiar with such negative attitudes.
The Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL) commissioned research that confirmed the negative stereotypes:
“The dominant personality traits of a person who injects drugs are seen to be selfishness, unreliability, dishonesty and untrustworthiness. The expectation is that as drugs are the focus of the person’s life, they are selfish in all the actions they undertake and do not consider the impact of their actions on others. It is expected that they would do anything to get drugs, due to being addicted, so are unable to be trusted as they are not able to control themselves from acting on impulses.”
What better therapy than a dose of honest hard work as Thomas Malthus prescribed in 1798. To Malthus, poor relief destroys the work ethic, it reduces productivity and maintains the causes of poverty. Poverty should be tackled through shame and a withdrawal of assistance from able bodied workers. Thus, the Prime Minister calls for “incentives and penalties — carrots and sticks — to ensure we help those who need it but don’t stand by while people who could work, choose not to”.
Will the shock of withdrawal of benefits be enough to transform drug users into responsible citizens? Every dependent drug user I have met wants to be free of addiction and the hundreds of parents I have spoken to have expressed their desperation at the absence of drug treatment, not next month, not next week, not tomorrow but today, when their child has summoned the resolution to submit themselves to it.
We don’t leave accident victims writhing in agony on the road for want of hospital beds. It is said that Australia has only half the number of treatment slots that are needed. Willingness to go through with treatment predicts success; “evidence of the effectiveness of compulsory treatment is inadequate and inconclusive”. Far better to focus on funding treatment slots than intensifying the shame of drug users.
Shaming reinforces the very factors that probably led them to dabble with drugs in the first place. It will be the friends and families of drug users on whom the impact of the withdrawal of benefits will quickly fall. Their love steels them to endure the inevitable desperation and frustration.
What does the government hope to achieve by applying stick to drug users? Coerce them into treatment? Reduce unemployment? Improve the bottom line? Gain electoral advantage?
The Prime Minister and the Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter, have openly claimed all except the last of these benefits. Those who have had to do with drug treatment and living with addiction contest those claims.
The government is of course justified in its concern about Australia’s drug problem, but the problem is much bigger than they think. Mr Porter has it “that unemployed people are over three times more likely to use meth/amphetamines, and 1.5 times more likely to use cannabis, when compared with employed people”. He makes no mention of the unemployed who have become addicted to pharmaceutical opiates in the course of treatment for chronic pain.
An indication of the extent of this evolving problem is given by a survey of the Australian Bureau of Statistics of drug-induced deaths. These have increased in recent years to the level of the 1990s with the difference that rather than heroin, “Prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, morphine and codeine… were present in over 30% of deaths in 2016.”
Australia is following the United States where the dependence on prescription opioids is having economy-wide effects. Princeton University research published just this year revealed that 40% of prime age men who are out of the labour force report that pain prevents them working full-time and that nearly 2/3 of them take prescription medication to relieve the pain. Here in the past year well over 1 million Australians (4.8%) misuse prescription pharmaceuticals. Eliminate their legitimate supply by cutting down on doctor shopping and they will quickly turn to the illicit black market.
Trials of heroin-assisted treatment in countries like Switzerland have shown that “despite a difficult labour market situation, there was nearly a twofold increase in permanent employment whereas unemployment dropped to less than half.”
If the Australian government is really concerned about reducing unemployment of drug dependent welfare recipients it will invest in treatments like these that stabilise lives.