How Coalition's plan to drug test dole recipients will work

PAGE MP Kevin Hogan has backed his government's plan to drug test 5000 welfare recipients but won't say whether the Northern Rivers would be shortlisted one of the three sites yet to be identified for the trial.

Under the plan, Newstart recipients who fail the test would be barred from receiving cash welfare payments, and instead get a non-cash debit card restricting purchases to essential items such as clothes, food, and travel. The ban would remain in place for the duration of the two-year trial.

If they fail a second test they would be required to see a GP and possibly undergo medical treatment.

Mr Hogan said the trial was part of the "mutual obligation philosophy" pushed by the government which also included a demerit points system for failing to front up to job interviews and work-for-the-dole shifts.

But he said it wasn't about punishing people.

"This is meant to be a helpful initiative, this is to encourage people to get off welfare, to encourage them to get a job," Mr Hogan said.

"You're not going to lose your welfare payment, that's not the point".

Areas identified as having a high number of welfare recipients and drug users - including regional Australia - will be the most likely sites used in the trial.

In those areas, a randomly selected recipient would receive a letter in the mail requesting their attendance at a face to face meeting, without being told they are to be drug tested.

The tests will rely on saliva testing similar to roadside drug tests, and target marijuana, ecstasy, and ice. However, the government hasn't ruled out testing hair follicles and urine as well.

Anyone who refuses to be drug tests will have their payments cut off.

Nimbin HEMP Embassy president Michael Balderstone is against the plan, saying it would target "vulnerable" people "already struggling to keep their life together".

"It's just more of that totally unfair and unrealistic war on cannabis," he said.

"It could easily backfire, we'll end up with more homeless people, more robberies, and people will move away from using cannabis (to other drugs)," he said.

"A lot of people who are struggling with their life, they'll turn to alcohol, they'll turn to pills and powders."

He said if the government really introduced hair follicle testing people would start shaving their heads because "hair follicles go back forever".

He added it could have a damaging impact on the health of medical cannabis users relying on the drug illicitly for pain relief, just as the unpopular roadside drug testing regime did, by pushing them into more dangerous drugs such as prescription opiates, obtained illegally.

Mr Balderstone advocated a more humane approach to drug use, which recognised people were using drugs to "self medicate" due to existing conditions.

But Mr Hogan said the drug testing trial wasn't going to be punitive and no one would lose any money.

"We're saying 'we're not giving up on you'," he said.

"We're saying 'we're still going to help you live, and we're going to give you medical treatment to try and help you'."

There are no plans to drug test those on the age pension, who form the vast majority of welfare recipients.

The trial will start on January 1 2018.

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