Mandatory drug testing in Australian prisons does not deter drug use but does contribute to poor social, health, and criminal justice outcomes, an expert says.

In Australia, nearly two in five incarcerated individuals report using illicit drugs, with around 40 per cent of those who injected drugs before imprisonment continuing to do so while in prison.

Despite its widespread implementation, there is no clear evidence mandatory drug testing in Australian prisons is effective at deterring drug use, a new article says. 

Instead, it contributes to poor social, health, and criminal justice outcomes for individuals incarcerated for drug-related offences.

Penalties for failing or refusing a drug test can range from cautions to loss of visitation rights and other privileges. 

Burnet Institute public health physician and epidemiologist, Dr Jocelyn Chan, says in a commentary on the Drug and Alcohol Review, that these penalties cause more harm than good.

“The use of sanctions to deter drug use is an abstinence-based approach that conflicts with the national framework of harm minimisation,” Dr Chan said.

“Qualitative data shows the fear of being targeted for drug testing and increased surveillance makes people reluctant to seek drug treatment or rehabilitation.

“Maintaining social ties promotes positive post-release transitions, and penalties such as limiting visitation rights can severely impact people’s transition upon release.”

Additionally, drug testing programs can incentivise people to change their drug use patterns from detectable drugs long after use, such as cannabis, to stronger substances with shorter excretion times, such as opioids.

There are alternatives to mandatory drug testing for monitoring drug use in prison, including waste-water analysis or questionnaires, which have been successfully implemented in some Australian prisons.

“By broadening the focus from simply monitoring drug use, to include monitoring drug-related health outcomes such as overdoses, injecting-related infections, or engagement in drug treatment, we can ensure drug programs or strategies improve health instead of creating more barriers and causing more harm,” Dr Chan says.