The recently released 2017 Federal Budget proposes an approach to drug abuse which has come under criticism for its potential negative impact upon disadvantaged Australians, especially youth living in poverty. 5,000 job-seekers in three communities will be singled out, and “at-risk” job-seekers in these communities will be required to submit to drug-testing as part of their job-seeker obligations; those who fail these drug tests will have their payments quarantined.
At this stage, the selection of the communities is likely to be based upon a combination of wastewater testing to identify levels of local drug use in target communities, and on data-profiling of individuals based on risk factors for substance abuse.
UTS Associate Professor Bronwen Dalton describes data profiling of certain people as being at-risk as “stereotyping on steroids”, and states that “such data-based programs often disproportionately target those of low socio-economic status”; the WA Council of Social Services CEO Louise Giolitto describes the trial as “pointless nastiness”.
Building stronger, more resilient communities is recognised as a high priority by the Australian Government’s Department of Social Services; how will these three communities cope with being identified negatively on a nationwide scale as “problem” areas? How will “at-risk” residents, already living with the stresses of risk factors such as unemployment and poverty, feel about being forced to prove themselves “clean”? And how will individuals who fail these tests feel about the cashless welfare cards that have been so unsuccessful when rolled out in communities such as Ceduna and the East Kimberley?
The decision to incorporate mandatory drug-testing for job-seekers into this year’s Budget identifies that complex factors can lead to drug abuse. The social return on investment of a punitive system seem dubious, especially when compared to the many highly-effective strengths-based early interventions struggling for funding to reach at-risk individuals; such initiatives improve outcomes, preventing drug abuse before it occurs and guiding individuals towards happy, fulfilling futures. With limited budget available to tackle the War on Drugs, it would likely be better to focus on methods that offer a helping hand.
While the risk factors that will be used to profile job-seeking Australians have not been announced, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s research on factors increasing vulnerability to drug use are perhaps unsurprising: poverty, the trauma of growing up in an abusive home, low parental involvement, peer and/or parental attitudes to drugs, alienation from society, and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Indeed, a recent survey by the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that a quarter of young women, and one in six young men, have suffered from anxiety and depression, and that the numbers are steadily growing.
Drug abuse typically starts in adolescence, which is frequently a time of turmoil even for the luckier residents of the Lucky Country. According to research conducted in the US, most adults with a substance abuse problem started using as minors, with half under the age of 15, and 60-80% of youth with substance abuse problems are also experiencing mental illness.
In other words: drug abuse is often associated with youth, vulnerability, poor mental health, self-medication and desperation. We do have a “drug problem” in Australia, with youth in poverty being particularly vulnerable, and with WA’s use of meth being the highest in the country, the problem hits home. But how would we feel as a state if one or more of the communities were in our own backyards, targeting people who our social services and non-profit sectors work so hard to help?
Unfortunately, this trial seems to focus on punishing those same individuals, who would likely benefit much more from better support systems. Are we doing enough to ensure wellbeing in disadvantaged communities? Could we not utilise community-based approaches, involves these communities as a source of knowledge and strength? As a member of an organisation that works tirelessly to combat drug abuse in WA by empowering youth to avoid that dangerous path in the first place, I am acutely aware of the potential for some of the students we work to empower being friends, family and neighbours of the job-seekers targeted by this trial.
At the Constable Care Child Safety Foundation, we often run intensive programs with secondary schools in disadvantaged communities about the pressing issues that face their students; as a result of what we have learned from these students, we have co-created a theatre-in-education performance, Candy Shop, based upon their wealth of knowledge and experience and their passion to help their peers. We are confident that disadvantaged young Australians can do great things and contribute meaningfully to their communities if offered avenues to do so, and a society that treats them with compassion and respect.
By listening to the voices of Australia’s disadvantaged, and letting them be part of the solution, we can mitigate factors that lead individuals to turn to drugs. On the other hand, existing substance abusers should be recognised as complex individuals who need our help more than ever, whose addictions cannot and will not be solved through mandatory drug-testing or payment quarantine.
Written by Lara Silbert, Communications Officer at CCCSF.
Candy Shop will be available to schools in Term 3.