OPINION: The Government's latest welfare reforms to cut the benefits of people who fail or refuse to take a drug test should be cautiously welcomed.
As it stands now, there are no consequences for drug-takers who opt out of job applications when faced with a drug test. While the details on the new rules are only emerging, it would appear from comments made by both Prime Minister John Key and Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett that appropriate safeguards will be put in place.
Already the New Zealand Drug Foundation has been quick to challenge the scheme, which should be in place next year. Foundation spokesman Ross Bell said the penalties might work on recreational users, but the policy did not address the bigger problem of those with real addictions.
The Government subsequently clarified the criteria, ruling out universal drug testing of all beneficiaries and those beneficiaries with drug and alcohol addictions would be exempt.
Ms Bennett said there were about 6100 addicts who were on sickness or invalid's benefits and they would be exempt. That number will come as a surprise to many New Zealanders.
As it stands, that group did not have to be tested until certified as being work ready by their doctor, although surprisingly, there is no obligation for them to get any form of treatment for their addiction.
Ms Bennett indicated this could change and it is a change that would seem well overdue.
Those safeguards should be sufficient to satisfy many of the Drug Foundation's concerns, although the obvious one identified by Mr Bell – "once you identify someone with a problem, how do you get them the help required?" – remains unsolved.
However, that issue existed before the mooted changes and will no doubt continue after they are implemented. That is a debate for another occasion and shouldn't in itself be a barrier to introducing tougher measures many New Zealanders would applaud.
The very notion beneficiaries should be exempt from the rules of society governing the rest of us is fanciful in the extreme, a point Mr Key has been quick to point out.
He said that taxpayers should not be supporting drug-users who refuse jobs that involve drug testing.
"If we're paying you a benefit; your responsibility is to be work-ready, and to be work-ready means that you can go along and actually pass that drugs test.
"Otherwise we're sending completely that wrong message – we're actually condoning illegal behaviour."
Mr Key said some, mainly young, people would turn down jobs because they knew they would not pass a drug test. While he found that unacceptable, so does any right-thinking New Zealander.
This is an overdue piece of legislation that will no doubt be met with resistance by various advocacy groups.
However, as long as adequate safeguards are in place, it is hard to disagree with the logic and the societal equity inherent in the concept.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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