New Study Casts Further Doubt On Roadside Drug Testing

By Kieran Adair

April 19, 2021

A recent study has cast further doubt on the NSW’s Government’s controversial mobile drug testing program.

The study, released by the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics at the University of Sydney, compared how long cannabis users are likely to be impaired by the substance to the duration of the time it can be detected in their system.

It found that marijuana is likely to impair a user’s driving for between three to 10 hours but can still be detected in their system for weeks after being consumed – a finding which strengthens the case for changes to drug-driving laws.

Academic director of the Lambert Initiative, Iain McGregor, said the finding was particularly relevant to medicinal cannabis users, who still face penalties if caught with the substance in their system – even if they are not impaired.

“You got this massive amount of a prescription drug going into people who are told, ‘You can’t drive at all, you can’t even have one molecule of THC in your system’, which is, you know, just ridiculous,” Professor McGregor told ABC News.

“THC can be detected in the body weeks after cannabis consumption while it is clear that impairment lasts for a much shorter period of time. Our legal frameworks probably need to catch up with that.”

Why Drug Testing Doesn’t Improve Road Safety

Since its introduction in 2007, roadside drug testing has come under criticism from legal experts and civil liberties advocates.

Like the state’s sniffer dog program, they claim roadside drug tests do nothing to improve community safety, and instead are about giving police the power to conduct searches where they would otherwise have no cause.

Under the Road Transport Act 2013, police can request any driver to stop for the purpose of a mobile drug test. The penalty for refusing can attract a penalty of up to $1,100 fine.

Former magistrate David Heilpern said the research showed laws around roadside drug testing needed to change.

Mr Heilpern retired early, partly due to his frustration at seeing so many medicinal cannabis patients lose their licence, and sometimes their livelihoods, after being caught driving with small amounts of THC in their system.

“We had a situation where people were taking their medicine as prescribed, they weren’t driving in any adverse way and yet they were losing their licence, being fined and getting a criminal record,’ he said.

Mass Drug Testing By Stealth

“This has become a de facto means of drug testing all citizens, and they’re doing it through licensing,” said Mark Davis, Principal of Sydney City Crime.

“There’s no onus on the police prove these people were affected by drugs in anyway, but you still have hundreds of people ending up with criminal convictions – even for trace elements in their system.”

Recently, a Sydney business owner has claimed his livelihood has been destroyed as a result of flaws within the state’s controversial roadside drug test scheme.

Alec Zammit, who previously ran a private security company, had his license to operate automatically revoked by the NSW Police after a random drug test found cannabis in his system while driving.

However, Zammit disputes these results, and believes the positive test was caused by cross contamination from his partner, a medicinal marijuana user.

Unlike a roadside alcohol test, which measures the level of alcohol present in person’s system, the drug test used by the NSW Police only tests for the presence of illicit substances – making no differentiation between those who are impaired, and those who have come into casual contact with them.

Despite this, the penalties are equally severe – drivers face fines, the loss of their licenses, and in Zammit’s case the loss of his security licence.

“I immediately had to turn over my master security licence therefore terminating the security company that I am the sole director of and resulting in 4 people, plus contractors, instantly finding themselves without a career,” Zammit said.

“Myself and my staff have mortgages to pay. This is not right!”

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