The New South Wales Government announced late last year it would be cracking down on drug driving with a plan to triple the amount of mobile drug tests (MDTs) conducted by 2017. This has become a hot topic of conversation as police units across the country continue to announce increased presence on the roads with more regular and targeted drug testing strategies.
Despite the fact 16 per cent of all road fatalities involve drug driving, many Australians continue to debate the effectiveness of roadside drug testing, particularly when it comes to cannabis. A local magistrate in Lismore publicly called into question the accuracy of the tests earlier this year, claiming many people appearing before him gave testimony they had not smoked weed for days or weeks before they returned a positive test result at the roadside. Unfortunately these claims cannot be verified and don t match evidence that underpins the test.
How do the tests work?
When stopped by police, the driver is asked to wipe a test stick down their tongue to collect oral fluid. The result is shown after about five minutes, and if the driver has been found to have the illegal drugs tested for in their system, they must then provide a second sample. If this also positive, the driver can t get behind the wheel for 24 hours. The samples are then sent off to a lab for further testing, and if they confirm the roadside test, the police will charge the driver.
According to the NSW Government s road safety website, if you are driving or behaving erratically, you can also be required to give a blood or urine sample if police suspect you may under the influence of illegal or prescription drugs.
Which drugs do the saliva tests pick up?
MBTs test for recent consumption of THC (cannabis), methamphetamine (speed/ice) and MDMA (ecstasy) in drivers or those supervising learners.
So how accurate are the tests?
The short answer? Very. If you’re worried about a test picking up a joint you smoked last month then there’s no need. The scientific evidence states the tests can only pick up THC in the system up to 12 hours for the average person.
It is important to remember that everyone is different, with a variety of factors influencing how we break down THC, so there’s no hard-and-fast rule to guide when an individual is likely to test negative. The Lismore magistrate remains the only one in Australia who has publically questioned the accuracy of MBTs, so changes to the current system in New South Wales (or any other state) are very unlikely until new technology (such as THC breath analysis) is proven to be valid and reliable.
How many people are actually being caught by mobile drug tests?
According to police, one-in-ten drivers who are tested return a positive result, which dramatically outweighs those drivers testing positive to alcohol. The number of charges finalised in NSW courts were up 109% last year, from 1456 to more than 3000. Given the MRTs have been ramped up over recent years, they cannot be considered random in the same way as RBT for alcohol.
What are the penalties if you get caught with a drug in your system?
Punishments vary from state to state, so we ve outlined the various drug driving penalties for a first offence below.
New South Wales
Maximum penalty of $1100 fine, plus 3 months license disqualification.
Maximum of $1,820, and a minimum of 12 months suspension from driving.
First time offenders caught driving with a mix of drugs and alcohol in their system will now also face fines of $4550 and licence suspension for 12 months.
Drivers found with cannabis in their system face a maximum fine of $1500, plus disqualification for 3 years.
$1200 in fines, plus loss of drivers licence for up to 12 months.
Maximum of $1593 in fines plus three months of license disqualification.
Up to $1300 in fines and 4 demerit points.
Up to $2500 in fines and 3 demerit points.
$765 for a first offence, and up to 6 months license suspension.
Please note, these are correct as per each state s relevant website as at August 2016, check state and territory websites for updates.
As police around Australia continue to ramp up roadside drug testing and spend more on drug detection technology, the chances of getting caught driving under the influence of cannabis are higher than ever.
Drug driving penalties aren’t likely to become any less severe. MDTs are reliable and not going anywhere, so the best way to avoid getting caught is pretty simple: abstain from smoking before driving for at least 12 hours and do not mix even low level alcohol and cannabis use. For more information about cannabis and driving, visit our Cannabis and Driving page.