Roadside drug testing apparently fails to detect heroin, cocaine, GHB and other illicit drugs


The NSW Government recently announced a blitz of roadside drug testing in the lead up to the summer season. It claims that 14% of road fatalities involved a driver/rider with an illegal drug in their system, while 1 in 13 roadside drug tests in 2015 returned positive results, compared with 1 in 300 alcohol tests.

The Government’s approach has been criticised by Greens MP David Shoebridge, who argues that punishing presence of drugs in people’s systems rather than levels at a concentration which would impair their driving, as per the laws around drink driving, is unfair. He commented “we are talking about inevitably thousands of people who will be losing their licence for up to 12 months and having to pay significant fines when there was no evidence they were a danger to other road users”.

Visiting fellow at the Australian National University and health and justice expert David McDonald said “there is no body of scientific evidence that shows this roadside oral testing actually improves road safety”. He also commented that the roadside drug testing system in Britain is more advanced, as it tests for impairment and other legal drugs which impair driving such as benzodiazepines like Valium.

Those who are found guilty of driving with the presence of a prescribed illicit drug present in their system, they may be convicted and fined a maximum of $1,100 for a first offence or $2,200 for a subsequent offence, and lose their licence for an automatic 12 months, and not less than a minimum of 6 months. The only way a person can avoid these penalties if found guilty is if they are dealt with under s 10(1) of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999, thereby avoiding a conviction.

In an excerpt of the NSW Police Standard Operating Procedures for the roadside drug testing program, it was revealed that the test only screens for three illicit drugs, being THC, MDA and MDMA (and any amphetamines including speed and ice), despite the law criminalising driving with the presence of any drug which it is illegal to possess in NSW under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985. This means that drivers high on cocaine, heroin or GHB for example would pass the roadside saliva test, and could only be submitted to a blood or urine test if the officer has a reasonable belief that the person is under the influence of a drug, and then fails a sobriety assessment. The alternative charge of driving under the influence of a prohibited drug is also available. Therefore, given that an officer has to have the same level of suspicion as to the sobriety of the driver to test them for the presence of these other drugs in their system as they would to charge them with driving under the influence, the law has no work to do. The inconvenient fact is that drivers with quantities of cocaine in their system, surely prominently in the public perception as the drug for the ‘rich’, are apparently insusceptible to roadside drug testing, but those with the drugs of the ‘poor’, such as ice, as well as ‘soft’ drugs such as cannabis, are left out of the Government’s press releases on its drug driving blitz. Further, while the Road Transport (General) Regulation 2013 criminalises driving with the presence of Valium and other legal drugs, the testing equipment also apparently fails to detect these substances.

The fact that drugs can be present in minute concentrations for days, therefore presumably contributing nothing to the driver’s level of impairment, further underlines the vagueness and unfairness of these laws as they stand.

The Government ought to address the glaring gap between targeting drivers who pose no threat to other road users and targeting those who are impaired and actually pose a risk to community safety.

Know Your Rights

Image credit: Sydney Morning Herald

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Roadside drug testing apparently fails to detect heroin, cocaine, GHB and other illicit drugs