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Welfare Reform and Substance Use

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Drug Foundation has released a policy briefing on Welfare Reform and Substance Use. This follows our concerns about the Welfare Working Group (WWG) recommendations on addressing substance use in people receiving welfare. While we strongly endorse the WWG’s call for more rapid access to drug and alcohol treatment services, we believe that many of the group’s recommendations are based on flawed assumptions.

Our policy paper reviews key international evidence on welfare reform and substance use. We conclude that the threat of graduated benefit sanctions will not drive people with alcohol or drug dependency to modify their behaviour. Rather, this has the potential to exacerbate poverty, increase crime and harden drug dependency in a group that is already marginalised. We also highlight the legal, ethical and practical issues relating to employment drug testing. Embarking down this track will be highly problematic. Drug testing cannot determine intoxication or impairment, and a positive drug test is not an indication of problematic drug use. We also discuss how the rate of drug use in beneficiaries has been greatly overstated; other barriers to employment such as co-existing mental illness and lack of work experience are of far greater significance in this population.

We provide the Ministerial Group on Welfare Reform with a series of 14 alternative recommendations. Among our key recommendations are that mental health and addiction specialists be closely involved when formulating welfare policy designed to address substance use. We also recommend a distinction be made between occasional drug use that has no impact on workplace safety or productivity versus problematic drug use. Ultimately, decision makers should be guided by the scientific evidence and not base policy on flawed populist assumptions reflecting an ideology that drug users are best punished or coerced into treatment to become drug free.

Download the Policy Briefing Welfare Reform and Substance Use, June 2011 (PDF 660KB)