Cocaine now included in roadside drug testing

Cocaine now included in roadside drug testing

The NSW Government announced today that cocaine would be included in roadside drug testing.

This morning, Premier Gladys Berejiklian  announced that tougher laws would also be put in place to tackle the growing road toll in NSW roads where 393 people were killed last year.

In 2015 over 36,000 people were pulled over in NSW for random drug driving testing (Source: Huffington post)

Since roadside testing started in 2007, the NSW police have conducted an average of 32,000 roadside tests annually (Centre for Road Safety, 2015). A report released in March by NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), shows the number of people charged with drug driving in NSW since its introduction has increased by 320 percent. From 2014/15 to 2015/16 the number of roadside tests jumped from 2,331 to 9,808 in one year alone.

Currently roadside MDT saliva tests detect the following:

  • THC the active ingredient in cannabis
  • Methamphetamine, which is found in drugs such as ’speed’, ’base’, ‘ice’, and ‘crystal meth’
  • MDMA or otherwise known as ecstasy or ‘molly’

(Source: Alcohol and Drug Foundation)

Not only has the NSW Government cracked down on drug driving by tripling the amount of mobile drug tests (MDTs) conducted to a whopping 97,000 tests starting in 2017 (Transport for NSW media release, 2015). The government also recently announced that it will be introducing cocaine to the drugs tested by MDT.

Drug driving facts

According to the Road Transport Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing) Act 2006, it is an offence to drive a motor vehicle with an illicit drug present in a driver’s oral fluid, blood or urine. Anyone who is operating or attempting to put a motor vehicle in motion including a passenger acting as a ‘qualified supervising driver’ may be required, by law, to undertake a random roadside saliva test.

The maximum penalty for a first drug driving offence in NSW is a $3,300 fine and could be subjected to a mandatory interlock for up to 2 years. Offenders convicted of a drug driving offence are subject to an automatic six month licence disqualification for a first offence and a 12 month disqualification for a second/ subsequent offence.

Refusing to submit to a roadside drug test or breath analysis is a criminal offence in NSW and carries harsh penalties.

However unlike alcohol breath testing, there is no statutory drug concentration threshold. As a result, questions have arisen about the “appropriateness of drug driving legislation” (BOCSAR report). When it comes to drug driving, level of impairment is not an issue. A driver found to have even a trace amount of one of the proscribed drugs in his or her system is deemed to have committed the offence.

Is roadside drug testing fair?

David Shoebridge of the Greens Party argues that unlike random alcohol testing, which tries to stop impaired drivers from having accidents; “mobile drug testing is more about punishing people who take illicit substances.”

Cocaine was the second most common illegal substance in drug drivers, according to 2013 United Kingdom Wolff report and although devices like Dräger machines are capable of detecting cocaine, it has not been a substance tested by MDTs. Testing for drugs like cannabis and ice that are typically used by those of lower socioeconomic status, critics argue targets drug users from certain social classes. For example, according to a 2013 federal government research, Australians in the top 20 socioeconomic status use cocaine three times more than the bottom 20 per cent.

According to James Robertson of the Sydney Morning Herald, spokesman for the NSW Police confirmed that 3.2 per cent of drug specimens collected at roadside tests and sent away for forensic testing returned a positive reading for cocaine. Statistics from the UK coroner revealed that approximately five per cent of blood samples taken from drivers involved in traffic accidents tested positive for cocaine.

Shoebridge argues if you want to ensure road safety, MDTs should be testing for impairment, not merely the presence of drugs and we should focus testing on all drugs – legal and illegal – that impair drivers. Otherwise as Robertson says we are targeting poorer people when our government chooses not to test for substances preferred by wealthier sections of society.

Drug driving testing just putting more of a burden on the court system

Targeting people who use drugs and drive instead of those driving impaired, critics argue not only criminalises people who represent no risk to other road users. It also, as Assistant Professor Andrea Roth writes in the California Law Review, severely impacts on the rights of individuals and their families.

It also overwhelms our court system. According to the BOCSAR report, drug driving matters were ranked twelfth of the most common matters finalised in the Local Court and accounted for 27% of the overall increase in Local Court charges between 2014/15 and 2015/16.

Critics argue that we should focus on if a driver is a risk to other road users, not on whether someone smoked a joint before getting into his or her vehicle.

The NSW Premier has today said:

“Too many times over this holiday season and also during the year we have seen unnecessary deaths caused by people doing the wrong thing behind the wheel,” Ms Berejiklian said.

“As a government it’s incumbent on us to not only act in a way that protects the community but also send a strong message to the community that you cannot get behind the wheel and do the wrong thing.

“Today, we are announcing that we will be adding cocaine to the list of drugs that will be tested roadside.”

Ms Berejiklian also announced that the number of roadside drug tests would be doubled this year from 100,000 to 200,000.

“We will also be increasing the maximum penalty for using drugs while behind the wheel to be equivalent to high-range drink-driving ($3300),” she said.

“When someone irresponsible gets behind the wheel and does the wrong thing, it can result in tragic loss. Today’s measures are on top of what we’re already doing.

“People should not be taking illegal drugs and getting behind the wheel. A car is a lethal weapon. It’s one thing to cause yourself harm but to act irresponsible and cause harm to others is a tragic outcome of doing the wrong thing.

“Technology today is much better than it’s ever been in relation to detecting and testing for these illegal drugs.”

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said 17 people had already lost their lives on the state’s roads this year.

“Unfortunately, we’re kicked 2018 off with not a great year on our roads,” she said.

“That’s five above the same time last year. We’re tracking over one a day.

“I really think this will change people’s mindsets about taking drugs and then driving a vehicle. Those drugs shouldn’t be taken anyway.”