‘If this policy was in place then, this young mother might not have turned her life around. Frankly, she might be dead.’ Stock photograph: Alamy
Of the hundreds of people I treated when I was an addiction medicine specialist, one really stands out in my memory. She was a young mother with two energetic children, who used to turn my office into a jungle gym. By the time we met, her heroin addiction had already robbed her of so much. About the only things she had left were her kids and the government support that helped her to take care of them while she received treatment at our clinic.
I’m grateful that after a long and difficult recovery, with many stumbles along the way, she is now able to hold down full-time employment and give her kids the kind of loving, stable home that they deserve. It was her face that flashed in my mind this week when I heard the government’s proposal to randomly drug test people on income support and tie their benefits to their drug use. If this policy was in place then, this young mother might not have turned her life around.
Frankly, she might be dead.
There are some people who will look at the government’s proposal to subject 5,000 recipients of income support to random drug testing as nothing more than a cynical dog whistle to the far-right of the Coalition and their tough-on-crime surrogates on talkback radio. I prefer to believe that most people who support a law-and-order approach to substance abuse actually do so out of a genuine desire to help people. The problem is, it doesn’t work and often just makes things worse. As a doctor working in the field for years, I’ve had the experiences to prove it.
Addiction is, by definition, a process in which people struggle and relapse. Imagine all of the things people have lost by the time they find themselves in treatment. Like many people struggling with addiction, my patient had contracted serious health problems like hepatitis C. She was unable to hold down a job and her relationships with her family and partner had broken down. If she had been randomly drug tested during one of the relapses that dotted her recovery, she would have lost the ability to care for her children. As a result she may well have lost custody over the single biggest motivating factor she had to continue her treatment.
Thinking back on the patients I successfully treated, I’m pretty sure that not a single one succeeded without at least one relapse. Relapse is a natural part of treating someone for addiction, which is exactly why this proposal is so insidious.
If we take away support payments at exactly the time when those people need it most, we’re writing a recipe for disaster. Those people won’t give up heroin or ice, but many will turn to illegal methods to support their habit, from dealing drugs to prostitution or theft. Far from addressing the social ill of addiction, this proposal will compound it.
And let’s not kid ourselves: this isn’t just about addicts. If we open this gateway to government applying a morality test for government support, we’re setting a very dangerous precedent that could one day be applied to anyone receiving government assistance. Imagine failing a drug test because you took a pinger at a festival on the weekend and losing your Hecs funding as a result. What if you got caught smoking a joint and lost access to Medicare? Is that really so far-fetched once we start down this Orwellian road?
The bottom line is that addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Most of the world seems to understand this and many countries, particularly in Europe, have been making great strides forward by treating it as the health issue it is. Unfortunately, as in so many other things, this government seems intent on taking us backwards.
It might feel good to punish someone for breaking our outdated drug laws, but we have to ask ourselves if it actually does anything positive. If we’re honest, the answer is no and we will all stand up against this dangerous policy before it’s ever enacted.