EDITORIAL: Drug driving - a question of impairment

CANNABIS, alcohol, amphetamines, prescription medications: these can all impair your driving ability – so why are only two of them illegal to posses?

On January 12, police performed drink/drug tests on 84 drivers in Bega. Fourteen gave positive roadside oral fluid results for illicit drugs and were taken for further oral tests to be analysed in a laboratory, looking for cannabis and amphetamines.

When this story was posted on the Bega District News’ Facebook page it generated a debate over how fair it was to charge drivers caught with drugs in their system, particularly if the drugs were potentially taken several days prior. 

The NSW government’s Centre for Road Safety (CRS) states cannabis can be detected in saliva for up to 12 hours after use while stimulants such as speed, ice and pills can be detected for one to two days.

In fact, according to the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre, cannabis can stay in your system for up to five days if you are an occasional user or six weeks if you are a regular user – far longer than alcohol would remain in your system. 

Also, documents obtained by the NSW Greens under freedom of information laws have shown there is no lower limit of drugs that are detectable in the saliva of people subjected to the roadside oral drug tests, and no proof the tests are effective in preventing crashes.

Despite this, nearly 100,000 NSW residents each year are subjected to roadside drug testing.

Illicit drugs should not be the only drugs thought of as impairing to drivers. In 2013 a UK-based study found that benzodiazepines, such as Valium, were the second most common drug found in drivers killed on roads – the first was alcohol. 

The CRS states taking prescription medications can affect your driving and people who take medication should use alternative means of transport – sound similar to those What’s Your Plan B ads released by the state government?

However, this should not understate the impact illicit drugs have on the road, as the CRS states about 10 per cent of mobile drug tests come back positive compared with less than one per cent of RBTs for alcohol. 

These facts highlight how being impaired by any drug can affect your driving ability, but there needs to be more specific testing to identify when there are high doses of drugs such as cannabis or Valium in your system.