Australia’s unique roadside test for marijuana use in drivers

Drug drivers are disproportionally involved in road accidents.

Police in Australia have the right to stop people at random and perform roadside tests to see if driver's are intoxicated.

Solving the issue of drug-driving

One common concern, raised by those with concerns over the legalization of recreational cannabis is the potential for car and workplace accidents to increase as a result of the loosening of the rules.

They are right to raise the issue.

 

SCIENCE

Statistics show that drug driving is a growing problem and, unsurprisingly that drug drivers are disproportionally involved in road accidents.

 

Taking any drug prior to driving has a twofold effect. First, drug drivers aren’t in a position to fully realize the ramifications of their actions and so, are more likely to undertake higher risk driving. Secondly, the drugs they’ve taken slow their reaction times. A double shammy.

Australia is uniquely positioned to offer insight to the problem. Australia is the only country in the world with a working roadside drug test program. Does Australia have the answer to the world’s potential problem with marijuana drivers – and those who consume cannabis prior to working?

 

How does the Australian scheme work?

Police in Australia have the right to stop people at random and perform roadside tests. Screening uses something called an MDT – A Mobile Drugs Test.

 

FACT

The New South Wales (an Australian state) Center For Road Safety devised the test the police use and says that it’s procedurewill detect the presence of THC (the psychoactive compound found I cannabis which could impair judgement and control of the vehicle) up to 12 hours after the user smoked it.

 

The Australian scheme started with a government crackdown on drug driving in 2015 and has been in use since.

It’s worth noting that the MDT does not just test for cannabis use – it also highlights abuse of other, some would say more serious drugs like Ice and Ecstasy which the driver might have used before getting in the car.

 

How do these roadside drug tests work?

When users imbibe cannabis, it follows a two stage path

  • First it is active in the body: 
    The user experiences the ‘high’ he or she sought.
  • Second, it becomes metabolized:
    The body processes the drug. Some remnants are stored in the user’s hair and body.

The roadside test employed by the Australian police works by testing for active THC. A swab is taken of the driver’s saliva. The claim is that the test will identify drug use for up to 6 hours after it occurred, although government guidelines suggest that active cannabis can be detected up to 12 hours later.

The roadside test is not the end of the investigation. If a user does show a level of impairment beyond the threshold set, they are taken back to the station for a more thorough blood test, just as they would be with driving.

It’s important to realize that although users often feel ‘fine’ and able to drive, they may still be under the influence of a drug. The test is designed to detect that impairment.

In both the UK and Australia, those found to have contravened safe driving regulations can face the same sort of penalties that someone caught drunk driving might face – fines, bans and potentially, depending on the seriousness of the offense, jail time.


Similar schemes used by police elsewhere around the world

  • A trial is underway with a roadside test for 16 drugs in the UK:
    UK police are undertaking a trial of a similar facility. Their roadside test screens for 16 drugs in total and can declare a driver impaired, even if they are under the influence of prescription medication.
  • Canada is building a cannabis ‘breathalyzer’: 
    Cannabix Technology in Canada is trying to produce a roadside marijuana equivalent to the breathalyzer.
  • Standard ‘sobriety’ tests:
    Other alternatives include those conducted in Colorado and some US states – a more standard old school field sobriety test.

 

The tests have their critics

  • Do they work: 
    Hundreds of people in Australia have complained that they tested positive while being completely sober.
  • Things other than recreational cannabis trigger a positive result: 
    A positive result can be triggered by the use of legal hemp oil rubbed on the skin.Passive drug smoking can also indicate to the police that the driver has been using – when they haven’t.

 

In conclusion – there is more work to do to improve this test

These roadside tests hold promise although there appears to be some way to go in proving, at least to the satisfaction of the public, that they work. There is no evidence to the contrary, just belief based on the consistency of denials from people who have been accused of drug driving and denied it. On balance, the weight of support should probably go to the police here.Of course people deny being high while driving!

On the other hand, it’s important that Laws not only have to be fair, they have to be seen to be fair.The 12 hour period, during which the tests are supposed to identify intoxication from drugsis a scientific claim, and can certainly be easily tested and measured, in ways too simple to explain here.

Australia is ahead of the rest of the world in this area but other schemes have been started and the lessons from all of them should be applied wherever cannabis is legalized. The ramifications go beyond driving. Another major concern for policy makers are employees showing up to work. With drug driving offenses having doubled since recreational cannabis was legalized in Colorado, even those who are pro legalization should support the implementation of transparently fair tests to deter drug driving and the removal of those who drive or work under the influence.