Beneficiaries increasingly failing drug tests, numbers show
Losing their benefit may not be the deterrent the Government thought for the small but increasing number of beneficiaries failing or refusing drug tests.
The very low numbers of beneficiaries not passing a test since the law changed was taken by critics as proof that drug use was not widespread among those on government allowances. But the Government saw it as evidence the policy was acting as a deterrent.
However, new figures obtained under the Official Information Act show a slight increase in the number of failures and refusals.
Beneficiaries must pass drug tests if a Work and Income-listed job asks them to, or face their allowance being cut by half or in full. Before the changes were introduced in July 2013, beneficiaries could refuse to apply for jobs that required a drug test.
The social development minister at the time, Paula Bennett, lauded the policy as a success when, in the first 12 weeks, only 22 tests were positive – or about 1.8 each week.
But according to Official Information Act responses, a year after the scheme began, there was an average of 2.3 failures a week. In 2014, there were 134 failures, or about 2.6 each week.
Only one person failed both an initial and follow-up test.
Information from the ministry showed less than half of these cases resulted in sanctions. In 2014, benefits were cut in half for 33 cases, including twice for families with children. Another 27 times, allowances were fully cancelled.
A statement with the Official Information Act response noted the 2014 figures might include the same person being sanctioned more than once.
Those who failed to comply were given a warning and a reasonable period of time to stop using drugs and take another test before they are sanctioned, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said in a statement.
"It's pleasing the vast majority of those who are required to undertake drug testing are meeting their obligations and passing a drug test.
"We're focused on supporting people into work, and recreational drug use is not an acceptable excuse for avoiding available work."
Beneficiary advocate Kay Brereton said the numbers demonstrated it was not illegal drug use preventing the country's 285,000 beneficiaries from getting work.
"It's because there aren't jobs," Brereton said. "It's a classic waste of government money, where they think there's a problem, but they don't do any research and spend a whole lot of money changing the law when there was actually no problem."
When she announced the policy, Bennett said it would target recreational drug users, but would also drive dependent drug users to get treatment. It was estimated the policy might save the country $10 million each year.
Brereton believed it was "more about painting beneficiaries in a really bad way ... making it sound like there were a whole lot of beneficiaries sitting around smoking pot".
The severity of benefit cuts were based on how many times a person had failed in the variety of obligations Work and Income set. But any client with a child living with them would get their allowances cut by no more than half to protect families.
The unemployment rate had improved since the changes were introduced. In June 2013, the unemployment rate was 6.4 per cent while in March this year, it had dropped to 5.7 per cent.
The Ministry of Social Development declined an interview request.
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