1 In 9 Drug Driving Tests Are Positive In NSW, 1 In 5 In QLD

Drug driving results vary by state, as do how the tests are run.

Police say more motorists than ever are driving under the influence of drugs, but the results of drug-driving crackdowns vary wildly across states.

State police forces nationwide are beefing up their roadside mobile drug testing (MDT) programs, aiming to emulate the success and widespread acceptance of alcohol breath testing in preventing drink driving.

They hope to make the plastic tongue-scraping strips as normalised as the breathalyser in random policing checks.

"The program is based on the well-established Drink Driving program whereby the activity of police, performing random drug tests in high volume testing and anywhere and at any time, will generally and specifically deter a person from driving after taking illicit drugs," Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Doug Fryer, of the Road Policing Command, told ten daily.

Victoria Police show off the type of drug test strips which are used in the program (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

NSW authorities say 74 fatalities on state roads last year involved a driver or rider with one of the three drugs currently tested for -- methamphetamine, cannabis, and ecstasy -- in their system, and contributed to up to 231 fatal crashes between 2012 and 2016.

Victoria Police say 27 of the 166 drivers or riders who lost their lives on the road last year had drugs in their system, while eight were both over the alcohol limit and had drugs present. Drug drivers represented a higher number of road deaths last year than drivers over the alcohol limit, which made up 21 road deaths.

NSW Police plan to double the number of drug tests conducted by 2020, from 97,000 annually to 200,000 in two years time. Victoria plans to boost its number of tests from the current 100,000 a year to 150,000 a year.

But the drug testing program has its opponents, who say the initiative is too heavy-handed and blunt in meting out punishment to drivers.

The MDT strips currently only test for three drugs, while not testing for cocaine, heroin, and prescription drugs. Cocaine will come into NSW's testing scheme from July 1, 2018, according to Transport for NSW, while both QLD and Victoria authorities said they had no plans to test for the drug in the near future.

In contrast to breathalysers -- which show an amount of alcohol in someone's system and have a threshold for what level is safe and what level is unsafe -- the MDT program simply shows the raw presence of a drug, without giving an indication whether a person is actually affected by that drug or not.

Drug swipes, similar to those used in Australia, displayed in France (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said police should not be screening for small traces of drugs in somebody's system, and instead looking at whether a driver is actually affected by drugs.

"If you're in any way impaired by drugs, illegal or legal, you should not be on the road. That's what police should be focusing their attention on," he told ten daily.

"Instead, we have a bizarre arrangement where police are testing for the slightest, smallest detectable presence possible, meanwhile they're waving through people zonked to their eyes on Benzodiazepine or cocaine."

The wildly varied rate of positive tests also attracts criticism. Queensland police say one in every five drivers they test as part of their MDT program returns a positive initial result for at least one of the three drugs. But in NSW, that number falls to one in nine drivers. In Victoria, it's one in 12. Most states use different technology, and different authorities give different advice as to how long to wait after drug use to drive.

"This is not an easy question to answer as the strength of illicit drugs is something that is neither regulated nor governed; so these drugs will have differing levels thus different timeframes for the human body to metabolise, process and eliminate them and can exceed 24-48 hours,"  Victoria Police's Assistant Commissioner Fryer said.

"If the drug is in the person’s system it will be detected."

'The Class War On Drugs'

Cocaine is currently not tested by MDT in NSW, Victoria or Queensland. NSW Police referred questions on the state's drug driving program to Transport for NSW, who said cocaine would be tested on state roads after July. QLD police, however, said there was "no intention at the current time to introduce screening of cocaine" in that state. Victoria police did not answer questions about screening for cocaine, simply saying they would "continue to review the categories of drugs detected in road trauma incidence".

Shoebridge said he was concerned that cocaine, a more expensive drug often favoured by elite members of society, was not tested by MDT programs, while cheaper drugs favoured by young people and those less well-off such as marijuana and methamphetamine were tested.

Then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott observes an officer administering a drug test in 2015 (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

"It’s part of the class war on drugs. Drugs used by lower-class members of society are aggressively policed and demonised while cocaine use is allowed to go on relatively unmolested in elite circles," he claimed.

"You can lose your licence because you had a joint a week ago, but at the same testing stop, police can be waving through drivers seriously impaired by prescription drugs. It’s the war on drugs dressed as a road safety campaign."

As well, prescription drugs such as Xanax, Valium and Temazepam are currently not tested by roadside MDT.

NSW and QLD authorities resisted answering questions on how long after consumption a drug would continue to show up on MDT screenings. QLD police referred questions to drug experts, while Transport for NSW simply said "if a driver has been exposed to illegal drugs, the best option is to avoid driving" -- but did not give advice on how long a driver should avoid driving. Victoria's Fryer was the only one to give a specific answer, saying tests could potentially pick up drugs consumed more than 48 hours prior.

Marijuana is one of three drugs currently tested for in MDTs across Australia (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

"In relation to passive smoking, there is no evidence to suggest that very small amounts of THC in the body that may result from passive smoking will be detected by roadside MDT tests," Transport for NSW offered.

How It Works

Despite variances in results, each state's drug driving program runs essentially the same way. Drivers can be tested for drugs after being pulled over by police as part of a dedicated random drug testing station which operates the same as a standard RBT operation, or can be tested after being pulled over by police for another reason.  All police commands in NSW are equipped with MDT kits, with plans to expand this to all police cars in the state. QLD police said there "are currently 623 operational officers" conducting MDT in the state.

Police produce a small plastic strip, asking the driver to scrape it over their tongue. According to NSW authorities, the test can take up to three minutes before returning a positive or negative result for the presence of one of the drugs tested.

"If the initial roadside test is positive, then a confirmatory oral fluid test is conducted.  If the second test is positive, then the oral fluid collected in this test is sent to the Laboratory for analysis," QLD Police said.

A drug wipe, similar to the ones used in Australia, being tested in the United Kingdom (David Kendall - PA Images via Getty Images)

Dedicated MDT operations will have a more scientific piece of equipment inside a bus or van for a secondary test, with a second positive result meaning the driver will be banned from driving for 24 hours and their samples sent to a proper laboratory for further testing. If a driver is pulled over by a patrolling police unit, they will be taken back to a police station for further testing. The subsequent tests may lead to charges relating to drug driving.

NSW authorities say "around 97 per cent" of roadside positive tests are confirmed by a secondary lab test in a laboratory, with Victoria citing the same fiture.

"No non-confirmed (false positives) is a goal. A robust false positive mitigation process is in place to prevent a person ever being wrongfully prosecuted," Fryer said.

QLD authorities claimed their percentage of false positives is "very low", while citing "industry confidentiality issues" for not providing exact figures in response to ten daily's questions.

False positives do occur, though, such as a well-publicised case in NSW in 2015 where a man tested positive for a drug he says he had never consumed.

Police say there may be combination drug and alcohol tests in the near future. John Giles/PA Wire

However, depending on jurisdiction, police can charge drivers with drug-affected driving even without administering an MDT. Transport for NSW pointed ten daily toward an educational video posted on the department's Youtube page, an officer explains that police can carry out a physical assessment of a driver's condition - such as how they were driving, speech patterns, mental state and balance - to determine whether someone is under the influence of drugs.

In NSW this can lead to a charge of driving under the influence, which can carry a $2000 fine and 12 months loss of licence. The penalties may range up to $5500, two years jail and five years disqualification from driving, under new laws in the state.

Despite this charge relying initially on a subjective test, this charge is actually a more serious one than if the driver returned a positive result on their MDT, which would lead to a charge of driving with an illicit drug present in their system, and carries a fine of $1000 and six months loss of licence.

"The offence of ‘Driving under the influence’ is not detected through MDT, but involves blood and urine testing if Police observe a driver who due to their manner of driving, behaviour or appearance, is believed to be impaired," Transport for NSW said.

"This testing can detect a range of drugs, including illegal and prescription types and carries higher penalties as the driver has been detected driving while observably impaired."

Shoebridge said such a subjective test was not the best option, and said the entire MDT program nationwide should be reformed to allow for a certain level of impairment could be tested for, in the same way as breathalyers record a level of alcohol consumption.

"There aren't clear legislative guidelines that identify how someone is impaired, it really is a subjective test. The data does show a significant number of drivers are being charged with this, so offence does seem to be working," he said.

"There is a role for that kind of subjective test, because there are all manner of traffic offences that involve a degree of subjectivity, but we should adopt a model similar to the UK where we identify the level of drugs found to impair a driver."

"Surely the drink driving model, which has almost unanimous community support, should be the one we use for testing for other drugs. It sets a level the community feels is fair and reflects genuine impairment."

As for the future of drug testing programs, Fryer said technology was advancing toward a test that would screen for alcohol and drugs simultaneously.

"Ideally we would love to see everyone tested for alcohol be tested for illicit drugs. We currently perform 4.5 million preliminary breath tests," he said.

"The technology to have a combination drug and alcohol testing/screening machine is currently not available and is technologically challenging but we hope in the future it becomes possible."