Measures for addicts 'could backfire'

The Drug Foundation says punitive measures being considered against drug users who are on benefits could exacerbate poverty, increase crime and harden substance dependency.

It is so concerned about the Welfare Working Group's "flawed populist assumptions" about substance abuse that it is urging the Government to work with mental health and addiction specialists when considering its recommendations.

The group wants strong rules and obligations for drug and alcohol use by beneficiaries, enforced by a graduated sanctions regime.

Drug and alcohol-dependent beneficiaries would be offered free treatment services and those who failed drug or alcohol tests would face cuts to their benefits and a 13-week stand-down for the third offence.

Seven ministers are considering 43 recommendations by the group, and reform of the sector is expected to be a major part of the National Party's election campaign.

The foundation has written a paper saying the recommendations lead it to question "whether social policy analysts and employment providers have the knowledge, skills and experience to determine drug or alcohol treatment issues so fundamentally".

Executive director Ross Bell said the group did not seek the advice of the foundation when it prepared its report. "I'm not sure they talked to anyone in the addiction treatment sector."

The premise of the report was correct, he said. "We should be providing people who need help with the help they need."

But the foundation was concerned about drug testing because tests were unreliable, Mr Bell said. "The tests don't test for whether you're addicted or not, you may just be a recreational user. Your drug use may not be the thing that means you can't get work."

There were not enough treatment services, he said. In 2008 the National Committee for Addiction Treatment estimated the amount of services needed to double just to treat those most severely affected by addiction.

However, the group noted its recommendations would require a "significant expansion" in publicly funded treatment programmes.

Mr Bell said the foundation was also concerned that beneficiaries would be labelled as addicts for life. "If the purpose of this is to get people into work, having that label is unlikely to help. People who are in recovery have a hard enough time as it is."

Many long-term beneficiaries had complex problems such as mental health issues, as well as addiction, he said.

"Cracking the whip, in our reading of the international research and experience, simply doesn't work."

The group's recommendations aim to get 100,000 people off benefits and slash the cost of welfare from $47 billion to $34b by 2021.

Prime Minister John Key has said all 43 recommendations are on the table except a proposal to force mothers who have a subsequent child while on a benefit to return to work when their baby is 14 weeks old.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said: ''Ministers are looking very closely at this recommendation and personally I have real concerns about young people being work-ready, which means being drug-free and able to take up a job when the opportunity arises.

''Recently 17 per cent of the young people at a Work and Income seminar said they wouldn't pass a drug test. Forestry industry leaders tell me they simply will not hire young people who can't pass a drug test and they find a large number don't. That is unacceptable.''