What is roadside drug testing?
If you saw police pulling people over for a MDT, would you be worried, or baffled, or both?
Mobile Drug Testing might not yet be a part of our driving culture, the way RBT (Random Breath Testing) is, but you can bet it will be over the next few years, as authorities across the country ramp up their regimes to catch people driving under the influence of drugs including, marijuana, ecstasy, amphetamine and methamphetamine.
The reasons for the increase in this kind of testing - with Victoria conducting 100,000 in 2016, a figure it claims is world leading, and NSW catching up to that total in 2017 - are the same statistical ones that led to the size and scope of the RBT approach.
Research by the NSW Centre for Road Safety has found the presence of illegal drugs is involved in the same number of fatal crashes as drink driving.
of the 206 people killed on Victorian roads in 2016, 58 of them were found to have had illicit drugs in their system
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, several studies have shown that drivers with THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) in their blood were roughly twice as likely to be responsible for a fatal crash or to be killed than drivers who hadn't used drugs or alcohol.
Other experts estimate drivers under the influence of illegal drugs are 18 times more likely to be involved in deadly accidents, and that figure rises to 32 times more likely if alcohol is also in their systems.
Victorian Police Assistant Commissioner Doug Fryer says “drug-driving behaviours” need to change in our community.
He points out that of the 206 people killed on Victorian roads in 2016, 58 of them were found to have had illicit drugs in their system, compared to 43 with illegal alcohol levels in their bloodstream.
Fryer says the mobile drug tests are not about the moral issue of using the illicit substances, but about using them and driving. “If you choose to take drugs, you need to separate that behaviour from driving,” he says.
So how common is drug driving?
In the US, a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 10 million people admitted to driving under the influence of illicit drugs in the previous 12 months. In 2016, more than 8700 people were caught with illegal drugs in their system on Victorian roads alone.
About 9800 people were charged with driving under the influence of drugs last financial year in NSW, compared with 2300 the year prior, according to Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research analysis, which amounts to a rise of some 320 per cent.
In 2015, one in seven NSW drivers tested positive for illicit substances, compared to one person out of 236 failing a Random Breath Test.
So, essentially, the people on the road with you are far more likely to be driving under the influence of drugs than to be over the 0.05 blood alcohol limit.
What happens if you get pulled over for a MDT?
Think of the MDT as simply an extension of the RBT process, because essentially you’re being pulled over for both.
If you’re selected for a random test you will be asked for your licence and then to complete the RBT, usually by counting aloud into a test device.
Then you'll be given an MDT test stick and asked to wipe it down your tongue, to collect enough saliva for an initial test. It generally takes around three minutes for a lick-stick test result to be given and if you come up clear, in both tests, you’re good to go.
In NSW, for example, the fine is $1100 and your licence is cancelled for six months.
If your MDT is positive, however, you’ll be taken to a roadside-testing vehicle where you’ll be asked to give another saliva sample, which will then be tested using more advanced equipment.
If that second sample is positive, you’ll be parking your car and finding another way home, and you’ll be banned from driving for the next 24 hours, while your samples are sent to a laboratory for even more detailed analysis.
If the presence of ecstasy, THC (cannabis), amphetamine (speed) or methamphetamine (ice) is found in the lab you’ll be contacted by police and formally charged with an offence.
Aside from random tests, police can also pull you over and ask you to undergo drug testing - including blood and urine testing - if your driving or your behaviour is erratic and they have reason to suspect you are under the influence of illegal, or prescription drugs.
Those charged will face court and could lose their licence, depending on State laws, and be fined. In NSW, for example, the fine is $1100 and your licence is cancelled for six months.
More serious offences can bring a 12-month licence disqualification and up to nine months in prison.
How much is too much when it comes to drugs and driving?
According to the NSW Centre for Road Safety, illegal drugs can be detected by an MDT “for a significant time after drug use, even if you feel you are okay to drive."
Unfortunately, it’s not an exact science, because the length of time drugs stay in your system at levels high enough to be picked up by the test “depends on the amount taken, frequency of use of the drug, and other factors that vary between individuals", according to the Centre for Road Safety.
“Cannabis can typically be detected in saliva by an MDT test stick for up to 12 hours after use. Stimulants (speed, ice and pills) can typically be detected for one to two days.”
Confusingly, each State and Territory offers different advice about how long marijuana, for example, can remain in your system for long enough to be detected, ranging from four to 12 hours.
If the amount of time drugs can stay in your body varies, how can the police be sure your driving is actually impaired by them at the time you’re tested?
They can’t, which is why some people are up in arms about the perceived fairness of the process, and of taking away the licences of people who may have, albeit illegally, ingested drugs two days before being caught, and were not actually a danger on the road when they were tested.
While roadside breath testing is based on exact thresholds - 0.05 blood-alcohol content - the drug-driving tests screen for the presence of cannabis, amphetamines or ecstasy at what have been declared detectable, or provable, concentrations.
In one court case in NSW, a Lismore man was acquitted after it was found he’d tested positive some nine days after smoking a joint.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge wants the MDT program reviewed, or pulled altogether, because he says it’s a waste of money that’s going to clog up the legal system by creating 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 licences 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.
Documents obtained by the NSW Greens using freedom of information laws show the tests do not show a level of impairment, and that there is no proof they are effective in preventing crashes.
Health and justice expert David McDonald, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, has also described Australian testing as "very odd" compared to similar systems in the UK, which test for levels indicating driver impairment and include other, legal drugs known to affect driving such as benzodiazepines like valium.
What about cocaine?
Initially, Australian authorities claimed that there was no test that could detect cocaine in a driver’s system, despite similar testing equipment doing exactly that in the UK. This led Mr Shoebridge to suggest the NSW Government, in particular, was picking on poor people and letting rich cocaine sniffers roam free.
The situation has recently changed, however, with The Daily Telegraph reporting that drivers in Sydney’s posh Eastern Suburbs are set to become the first in Australia to be roadside tested for cocaine.
NSW Police Minister Troy Grant is said to be closing the loophole that prevented the substance being detected by the DrugWipe devices used by police.
“When roadside testing of oral fluids was introduced in 2006, suitable equipment for detecting cocaine was not available,” he explained. “Technology has advanced considerably since that time and the testing of oral fluid for cocaine is now feasible.”
A trial on roadside testing for coke is scheduled to begin in the Eastern Suburbs, and Bondi in particualr, later this year.
The area is being targeted after sewage examinations conducted by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) found significant levels of cocaine in public plumbing beneath Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.
As one wit put it, the affluent have been dobbed in by their effluent.
The ACIC estimates that Sydney’s average cocaine consumption doubles that of any other capital city, weighing in around three times more than Melbourne’s use of the drug.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in May 2017 and has now been updated.