Editorial: Govt needs to tread warily on drug tests

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Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. Photo / APN
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. Photo / APN

In terms of leading the world, one of this country's most unfortunate claims lies in the extent of cannabis use. One of the consequences of this has been evident in forestry, an industry hungry for workers.

For many years, employers complained of the problems, safety and otherwise, arising from the number of workers showing up with the drug in their blood. More recently, they have started to do something about it.

Most major forestry companies test randomly, as well as running anti-drug programmes, providing educational material and using motivational speakers in an attempt to rid the industry of drugs. The results have been encouraging.

Now, however, the Social Development Minister, Paula Bennett, wants to do even more. As part of a new Welfare Reform Bill, she plans to cancel the benefit for those who refuse or fail drug tests while applying for jobs.

At the moment, she says, there are no consequences for drug-takers who opt out of job applications when faced with a drug test. This, of course, is because using the benefits system as a means of forcing people off drugs and getting their lives back in order has never been considered before.

There is reason for this. The minister's approach may work for recreational drug users. Effectively, they are being asked to make a lifestyle choice. But dealing with people addicted to drugs is an entirely different matter.

There is little to suggest that the stick of benefit sanctions will prompt them to drastically amend their lives. Taking money away from them will make no difference because addicts will go to any length to obtain drugs. Indeed, in some cases, they are more likely to be lured into crime or prostitution to feed their addiction.

Sensibly, therefore, the Government plans to exempt drug and alcohol addicts from sanctions for refusing or failing a drug test. It has, however, hinted that such beneficiaries may be forced to get treatment for their addictions. Such a step should be resisted as the policy detail is finalised. In no other area of health is such an approach taken.

For those suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses, for example, collecting a benefit is not contingent on agreeing to treatment. Why, then, stigmatise addicts in this manner? Specialists in drug treatment are adamant that addicts should not, and cannot, be coerced into abstinence.

The recommended approach is to encourage users to enter treatment programmes that offer abundant counselling and support. But it is fair for the Government to insist that if people in work are expected to be drug-free and able to work, it is quite reasonable that non-addicts on benefits should be able to pass a drug test.

It must, however, be careful about the degree of punishment for returning a positive test. Many forestry companies recognise this and avoid using a sledgehammer. The failing of a test means not instant dismissal but that someone cannot resume work until he or she provides a negative return.

Encouragingly, the Government seems to be working towards a similar formula. Ms Bennett suggests it is likely that if someone fails an employer's initial test, they will be allowed three or four weeks to return "clean". If they then fail a drug test, they would lose part of their benefit. That could later be recouped by staying clean, but they would lose more if they kept reporting back with drugs in their system.

The minister quotes a case in which of 74 young people attending a seminar, 18 said, "we will not pass a drug test, so there's no point in us going forward". The minister is, justifiably, appalled. Addressing that, however, will require a balanced approach that eschews extreme propositions.

- NZ Herald

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