Tasmanian dairy farmers battling drug use among staff as far north west region sees a rise in illegal drug use

Farmer with herd of cows

There are concerns an increase in illegal drug use in Tasmania's far north west could be spreading to the dairy industry.

Local support workers are reporting a significant rise in illegal drug use throughout the community and it is a trend reflected in other regional areas around Australia.

Tasmanian dairy group ,Van Diemen's Land Company, introduced a mandatory random drug testing regime a year ago.

But some individual dairy farmers are unsure how to manage workers they suspect are using recreational drugs.

North West Tasmanian farmers, Alison and James Finlayson, say illicit drug use among their workforce is a recipe for disaster.

"When it overflows into the work place it's not unacceptable," she said.

Mrs Finlayson says a former employee's drug use outside of work hours led to an accident on farm.

"They do that in their own time but the recovery tends to overflow into their work time and that's where the danger is, they are not really with it," she said.

"In a dairy workplace, it can actually be a very dangerous place, you're dealing with animals that are 500-600 kilograms, you have to be sure about what you're doing.

"You're dealing with very expensive and dangerous machinery," she said.

Mr Finlayson says it's not only recreational drug use among their workforce that has led to dangerous situations on their farm.

"We've had experience with people operating machinery and they've been intoxicated.

"We've had an instance where they've driven into obstacles and broken doors, because they haven't got their full concentration," he said.

The Finlaysons have suspected three former live-in workers of using drugs at their farm over the last decade.

One was a backpacker who was injecting drugs while living on-farm.

Mrs Finlayson says they had no idea until the day he was leaving Tasmania.

"When I cleaned up his room a few days later, his room was spotless, except he left all of his gear behind.

"A long silver spoon, that had obviously been heated, a band thing that you wrap around your arm, a metal thing that you put a band around and a few other bits and pieces," she says.

Tasmania's north west is expanding its dairy industry and is facing a severe shortage of skilled labour.

Local Mayor Daryl Quilliam says this is an added problem - that's a flow on from the anecdotal spike in illicit drug use in the region.

"Drugs and alcohol are always a problem with young people, unfortunately.

"We tend, unfortunately, in the dairy industry, in particular, but probably all agricultural industries, to attract people that are involved in this type of thing, that haven't got a lot of motivation to get better jobs," Mayor Quilliam says.

Drug testing on family farms vs corporate farms

The Van Diemen's Land company introduced mandatory random drug testing to its farms and offices twelve months ago. The testing is carried out by independent accredited testers.

One of the biggest dairy farms in Australia, VDL has about 30 farms and about 125 workers.

Business and Relations Manager Paul Niven says it's a component of its occupational health and safety regime.

"They do a breathalyser, just like you would with the police, and then they do an oral saliva test for drugs.

He says positive results have been less than one per cent of all tests.

Alison and James Finlayson say a drug testing regime is harder to manage on a smaller, family farm like theirs.

"If we had the opportunity to randomly test, I think we should be able to use that.

"But at the same time, especially on a smaller farm, you're at risk of undermining the relationship that you have with that employee.

"What if you're wrong?" she said.

The State Government's recent review of drug use in the north west found that there was not an epidemic of crystal methamphetamines or ice.

But it did identify that there is a severe lack of sufficient data to get a true picture of how widespread drug use is.

The review did cite comments from a meeting with Rural Health Tasmania, a local GP and Circular Head Aboriginal Council, quoting concerns raised about areas such as the dairy industry witnessing significant substance use issues within their workforce or potential local workforce.

The Department of Health and Human Services' Needle and Syringe Program shows a 49 per cent increase in syringes distributed in the north west, with the number increasing from 155,810 in 2010/11 to 232,390 in 2013/14.

Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation's CEO Dianne Baldcock carries out secondary drug tests after a positive test on VDL farms.

"The extent of the level of drug use in farms certainly needs to be a priority," she said.

She says that VDL's drug testing regime serves as a deterrent for drug users to apply for jobs with that business.

But she's concerned that this leads to the problem falling to smaller farming operations.

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