Falling through the cracks


In amongst the budget, responses and ‘expert analysis’, you might have missed the news that so called conservative ‘warrior’ and MP for the seat of Dawson in Central Queensland, George Christensen, recently became a medical tourist to Asia. Christensen, who before the operation weighed in at 176 kilograms, went to Malaysia for an operation to remove 85% of his stomach.

While it is fair to suggest that this website hasn’t been overly friendly to Christensen in the past, he deserves due recognition for attempting to redress a health problem that he claims was due to the politician’s lifestyle of constantly being on the road and rarely eating at home. Like a lot of overweight people Christensen said he had tried “every diet under the sun”. Christensen apparently wants to outlive his grandmother who died at 96; and good luck to him with this ambition. According to the article quoted above, former politician Clive Palmer has also recently lost almost 60kgs in the last eight months.

Regardless of the reason for Christensen’s former weight, the lack of weight loss success with less invasive measures such as diet and exercise suggests there are some elements of an addictive personality resident in the head of George Christensen. He also apparently has the necessary finance available to fund not only ‘every diet under the sun’ but the costs of travelling to Malaysia and undergoing the operation.

It’s lucky in some ways that Christensen isn’t a job seeker and his particular addiction of choice was not to an illicit drug. Turnbull and Morrison’s second budget introduced the concept of drug testing Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients before they are able to receive benefits. Turnbull’s response to Buzzfeed’s question regarding the medical or scientific evidence that demonstrates this scheme would work was interesting
"Well, I think it's pretty obvious that welfare money should not be used to buy drugs, and if you love somebody who is addicted to drugs, if you love somebody whose life is being destroyed by drugs, don't you want to get them off drugs?"
On the face of it, Turnbull has a point. Generally, those who have family members would move heaven and earth to arrange for the affected loved one to come out of the end of a de-tox program as clean. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Christensen is the perfect demonstration that he knows he has a problem, has tried ‘every diet under the sun’ (presumably failed) and ended up taking an irreversible surgical option. In a similar way, taking money off those using illicit drugs will have a probable outcome of increasing petty theft and house breaking rates due to those who can’t pass a drug test ‘falling through the cracks’ by choosing to leave the welfare system. If he really wants to ‘share the love’, Turnbull should be funding de-tox centres and programs to ensure that those with an addictive personality who find themselves using illicit drugs (instead of food, alcohol or tobacco) can be taken through to fix the root cause of the problem – not the claimed anti-social effects of the problem.

The problem is that Turnbull isn’t funding appropriate treatment centres. According to The Greens, fewer than half those who need it, are able to access drug and alcohol treatment. Regardless of your view of The Greens as a political party, their leader Richard De Natalie is a General Practitioner who specialised in drug and alcohol abuse, so he probably has a better idea than you or I how well this country looks after those who ingest illicit drugs.
"It's time to recognise this is a health problem not a law and order one. We have to have an open, honest conversation about this and stop pretending we're winning this war – we're losing and losing fast."
In fact, Turnbull’s new policy is a demonstrated failure. A number of conservative states in the USA have been running drug testing programs for welfare recipients over a number of years. Most of them have been shut down by the Courts as unconstitutional. Time Magazine reported on drug testing welfare recipients in August 2014 quoting examples such as Florida, which tested welfare recipients for four months in 2011 (before it was struck down in court as being unconstitutional) and found that 2.6% of the recipients tested positive to the welfare based drug testing regimen.

As an estimated 8% of the population of Florida were using illicit drugs in that period of time, either the welfare recipients were good at hiding their health issue, they couldn’t afford illicit drugs or generally drug taking behaviour is significantly under-represented in the population of welfare recipients. Regardless, the evidence from the period Florida drug tested welfare recipients clearly demonstrates that conservative legislators aren’t letting the facts interrupt a good ‘druggies on welfare’ story.

There is an alternative to the draconian law and order solution to the ‘drug’ problem. Portugal decriminalised personal possession of drugs in 2001. Those found with drugs are offered support to enter and complete a treatment program.

ABC’s Health Report explained the concept in 2009
Ten years ago Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. Heroin use was out of control and the rate of HIV infections in drug users became a humanitarian crisis. So what did Portugal do? They decriminalised all personal drug use in that country, crack, heroin, LSD, you name it. Drugs are still illegal, but it's no longer a crime to use them. Instead of jail, users and addicts are offered treatment and education.
Also in 2009, Time magazine reported on the results.
in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

"Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success," says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. "It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does."

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal's drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.
The German media organisation Der Spiegel reported on the ‘Portugal experiment’ in 2013 (during the time of concern over the Portuguese economy) and concluded
"We haven't found some miracle cure," Goulão says. Still, taking stock after nearly 12 years, his conclusion is, "Decriminalization hasn't made the problem worse."

At the moment, Goulão's greatest concern is the Portuguese government's austerity policies in the wake of the euro crisis. Decriminalization is pointless, he says, without being accompanied by prevention programs, drug clinics and social work conducted directly on the streets. Before the euro crisis, Portugal spent €75 million ($98 million) annually on its anti-drug programs. So far, Goulão has only seen a couple million cut from his programs, but if the crisis in the country grows worse, at some point there may no longer be enough money.
Greens leader Richard De Natalie has a personal interest in drug reform and has visited Portugal to assess the effectiveness of the program.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Turnbull and Morrison chose to take the path where behaviour outside what they consider to be acceptable norms is punished severely, rather than assisting the victims to recover from an illness. When you think of it, Turnbull and Morrison’s policy of drug testing welfare recipients is not a new concept. Regardless of the reality, suggesting those on Newstart or Youth Allowance are ‘dole bludgers’ or ‘druggies’ will assist a conservative government to reduce assistance to this disadvantaged group of people in our society without a lot of their core constituency protesting that unemployed or underemployed are getting a raw deal.

It’s a similar concept to the 2014 budget attempt by Hockey to make those under 30 wait six months before they would receive unemployment benefits. There are also parallels to the ‘Basics Card’ (when some people’s welfare benefits are ‘income managed’ and paid directly to a EFTPOS card that cannot be used to obtain cash or purchase a host of items including alcohol, tobacco and gambling products) or labelling refugees as boat people, illegal immigrants, queue jumpers and so on as a justification for the horrific treatment (consisting of detention centres in foreign countries, legal fictions in regards to the Australian border and the actions of the black shirted militaristic ‘Border Force’).

Certainly, Turnbull’s response to the question, ‘why test welfare recipients for drug use?’ was more nuanced than the quote reprinted here – but there is clearly a better way than driving people who are abusing substances underground. It’s telling that George Christensen – presumably a victim of an addiction to a legal substance himself – has called for drug testing for welfare recipients (and politicians) over a number of years.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate for Christensen (who seems to have an addiction to food) and other similarly minded conservatives who have a ‘interesting relationship’ with alcohol to be musing on the axiom there but for the grace of God go I

What do you think?
Let us know in comments below.

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Comments (2) -

  • Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    5/21/2017 3:32:18 PM |

    Great article. Interesting information about the Portuguese example. I would support Di Natale's advocacy for it to be implemented in Australia.

    As for Turnbull's, Porter's and Tudge's imposition of drug-testing on welfare recipients, it is yet another draconian measure inflicted on vulnerable people, as well as a smoke and mirrors avoidance of improving the payment levels of Newstart on the assumption that the recipients are suspicious and unworthy. Typical neoliberal and fascist treatment.

  • 2353NM

    5/22/2017 9:20:24 AM |

    Thanks Jennifer.  It was hard to see how Turnbull's drug testing, which you rightly call draconian, could be 'trumped' (in the cards sense of the word) but Dutton's 'fake refugee' palaver on the weekend certainly does it.

    This is an extremist government attempting to 'ethnically cleanse' the country of those that not of the same mindset as they are.

Comments are closed