EDITORIAL: High numbers of drug-driving positives

FROM the time that drug-driving tests were first conducted in the Hunter Region, authorities were concerned by the number of positives that were returned by motorists.

Although many of the drug detections were targeted operations, the numbers of drivers found with drugs in their system were substantially higher than the number of drink-drivers.

Now, the pattern has been repeated after a series of tests carried out on New Year’s Day as part of the annual “Arrive Alive” operation.

Working from Adamstown Heights, Mayfield and Tighes Hill, police tested 1764 motorists between 4am and 4pm on Friday, returning 13 positives.

These were traditional stationary random breath tests, and they showed that about one in 135 drivers was under the influence of alcohol. While not perfect, it is perhaps a reasonable result, and well down on some of the figures returned after previous New Year celebrations.

Within this broader set of 1764 motorists, police conducted drug tests on 162 people, or a bit less than one in 10 of the total. We do not know what criteria the police used to select these individuals, but 36 of the 162 were detected as having drugs in their system.

On an initial reading, this is an alarming number, but legitimate questions have been raised about the efficacy of such tests, especially as a positive drug test in itself may not necessarily be proof of impaired driving ability.

With alcohol, years of testing and research have shown that driving ability can be substantially impaired at even the lowest blood-alcohol levels detected by breathalysers.

But traces of some drugs, especially cannabis, can stay in the body for many days after consumption, and long after physical effects have worn off. On the other hand, amphetamines have such close links with aggression that nobody should be driving with such substance in their systems.

As things stand, illegal drugs are just that – illegal – and people should realise that driving makes them fair game for police detection.

All the same, roadside breath tests cannot become a lottery – as Greens MP David Shoebridge described them recently – at a time when other parts of the legal system are embracing a “harm minimisation”, rather than “zero tolerance” approach to drug law.

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