Greens MP David Shoebridge says roadside oral drug testing is an unfair waste of resources. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers
Nearly 100,000 NSW residents each year will be subjected to roadside drug testing that police admit does not look for drugs that are still active in a person’s system and critics say is about mass punishment of drug users, not road safety.
Documents obtained by the NSW Greens under freedom of information laws show there is no lower limit of drugs that are detectable in the saliva of people subjected to the roadside oral drug tests, and no proof the tests are effective in preventing crashes.
Excerpt of the NSW Police Standard Operating Procedures for the roadside drug testing program, provided under freedom of information laws.
The offence of driving “with the presence of cannabis, speed/ice or MDMA/ecstasy in oral fluid” is separate to the charge of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and police operating procedures reveal the tests do not imply a person is impaired by their drug use.
Greens MP David Shoebridge said the testing was a waste of money that undermined the legal system by making it a “de facto criminal offence of having potentially minuscule quantities of drugs present in your system”.
“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,” Mr Shoebridge said.
The tender to provide the test kits is worth $6 million alone over the four years to 2018, the documents show, while lawyers report that courts are having to deal with more and more people caught out by the tests, which carry the same penalties as low-range drink-driving.
Australians are among the biggest users of cannabis in the world, with more than a third of people having tried it and one in 10 using in the past year. Anyone who has recently used the drug faces the prospect of being caught, with the NSW government planning an increase from an average of about 32,000 tests a year to 97,000 in 2017.
Visiting fellow at the Australian National University and health and justice expert David McDonald said the testing was “very odd” compared to similar systems such as those in Britain, which tested for levels indicating impairment and included other, legal, drugs known to affect driving such as benzodiazepines like valium.
“Our system breaches human rights and is a gross waste of public funds,” he said. “It’s an infringement of our rights … because, unlike roadside breath testing, there is no body of scientific evidence that shows this roadside oral fluid testing actually improves road safety”.
Steve Bolt, from Lismore law firm Bolt Findlay Lawyers, said local court was becoming clogged with drivers picked up by the tests, seeing as many as 74 cases in just one day.
“There is no information provided to the court about the level of THC [the active ingredient in cannabis] present in the person’s system and the court is confronted with case after case after case where the person says it was days ago,” he said.
In those cases, the person was often allowed to have no conviction recorded, but he said it appeared police were now targeting people previously caught out, who would then lose their licence.
“There is almost zero public transport in our area, and many of them live a distance from the main area where they work and take their kids to school,” he said. “I think this testing is completely misguided and a waste of resources”.
But Assistant Commissioner John Hartley, the commander of the Traffic and Highway Patrol Command, said the tests were “a strong program aimed at deterring people who take illegal drugs from driving a motor vehicle”.
“Between 2010 and 2014, 14 per cent of all fatalities involved a driver or rider with an illegal drug in their system,” he said.
And Bernard Carlon, the acting executive director of the Centre for Road Safety, said drug-driving was a serious problem across the state, with one in three tests this year returning a positive result, compared to one in 300 alcohol tests.
“This is why we’re stepping up the fight against drug-driving.”
This included tripling roadside drug testing to 97,000 tests annually, and rolling out dedicated drug-testing vehicles to every NSW region.