Red Alert

Drug Driving – What do You think?

Posted by on May 10th, 2009

This is a bit of an experiment for me. I want to use cyberspace over the next 36 hours to get feedback on a couple of issues that involve civil liberties and lives.

For the last few months I’ve sat on a select committee working on a transport law reform bill that has two major strands driving while drug impaired and access to motor vehicle registration data. I’ve got two issues. And for the record the issues were in the bill as introduced by Labour and have not been fixed by the select committee where National holds the majority.

  1. If someone fails a breath test then all action related to driving while impaired with drugs ceases.  The evidence the committee got made it very clear that using booze and other drugs together had a multiplicitive effect when it came to having accidents. In an extreme case an offender would get a lesser penalty by having a quick drink when stopped at a checkpoint while high on “P”. Doesn’t seem right to me. My view is that where someone is clearly more impaired than they should be with a given breath test reading then the Police should have the right to move down the drug testing route as well.
  2. When someone is hospitalised then blood taken can be used for a drink but not a drug drive charge. In my opinion anyone who has active class A drugs in their system should be prosecuted – even if they have had an accident where they have been hospitalised.

I want to talk to colleagues about this on Tuesday – tell me what you think.

33 Responses to “Drug Driving – What do You think?”

  1. jarbury says:

    I would think that it’s the same as someone being in a situation where they’re charged with two crimes – they get charged with both and potentially can get sentenced for both. It would seem logical to investigate both drink driving and ‘drug driving’.

    I always thought the problem with medically testing for drugs is that they can stay in the system for a long time but not really adversely affect driving. This is particularly the case for marijuana I have heard.

  2. Trevor Mallard says:

    Blood testing for active drugs is a much tighter test than for example urine testing for marijuana. 24 hours v 6 weeks. But for those not able to do an impairment test my suggestion is that we restrict the testing to class A which is the real nasties.

  3. Shane says:

    I’ve heard too that marijuana can stay in a person’s blood for weeks after having some, so that sort of thing needs to be considered. Not sure how it is with other drugs.

    Of course if an officer pulls over someone or tests someone who comes through a booze bus checkpoint and a test for alcohol is negative, I would support them proceeding with tests for other drugs if they have some cause to believe they might be impaired by other drugs. Or perhaps allow completely random drug testing. I don’t think that’s allowed at the moment, or is it?

  4. Psycho Milt says:

    I’d rather see the Police put their time, money and effort into policing actual dangerous driving, rather than just trawling through drivers who are driving normally but could be to some extent “impaired.” We constantly drive around town among imbeciles treating the street as a drag strip, running red lights, failing to give way, failing to indicate, ignoring pedestrian crossings, and so on. These people seem to have carte blanche, while the Police concentrate on setting up checkpoints where they can see whether you had a couple of glasses of wine with your meal (or under this proposal, a joint afterwards). It may be easier to police factors that raise the likelihood of dangerous driving than to police the actual driving, but doing so brings the Police into disrepute.

    (NB: this isn’t simply sour grapes – I haven’t ever had trouble at a checkpoint.)

  5. Patrick says:

    As I understand class A consist of Methamphetamine, Magic Mushrooms, Cocaine, Heroin, LSD.

    I am not a pharmacologist but as I understand it magic mushrooms and LSD are very hard to test for. I know that cocaine isn’t a problem drug in New Zealand due to it’s restricted supply and relative expense.

    So the real question would be; Should we test for methamphetamine and heroin?

    Methamphetamine and heroin are both highly addictive and highly dangerous substances. I agree it is in everyone’s interests to have these people off of our roads.

    Is prison a better place for them? I’m sure possession of either substance in tandem with a drink driving offence would receive some kind of prison time.

    I have read the new National Drug Strategy. It focuses on harm reduction. I don’t think arresting the people using the drugs will solve this problem in New Zealand.

  6. Has it been established that the drugs in question actually do impair the ability to drive to an extent similar to alcohol over the legal limit?

  7. Robin Wilson says:

    To me the issue is Road Safety.ANY impairment should be pursued and if found to be voluntary,penalised to the degree of impairment.In other words if a driver causes an accident it don’t matter what the chemical was involved or to what degree, it’s still an accident which may have been avoided.

  8. Sam Vilain says:

    Thomas, take a look at the Class A list, I can’t see a single one on that list which I both recognise and would not be upset at a driver hospitalised from their driving for having taken. Well, one or two of them are natural hormones, so will be “in your system” all the time of course. Silly arguments like that aside, what about Amphetamine/Speed? MDMA? Morphine? Those are class B. I’d say anyone on a controlled stimulant, potent psychedelic/hallucinogen or depressant that gets into an accident probably has a substance problem.

    However in that instance there is already the case for allowing it – after all, the person has caused an accident.

    May I suggest what people are worried about here is the prospect of roadside invasions of privacy, for those substances which are known not to impair driving ability. There really only is one illegal substance I know of in this category.

  9. Trevor Mallard says:

    Thomas – what has been established by years of ESR research is that there is a very high corelation between drivers having active drugs in their bloodstream and fatal and injury causing accidents.

  10. Mike Mckee says:

    1. yes they should screen for drugs too.
    2. yes they should screened for drug use too.

    these should go tandem in todays world.
    however the basis for drugs involvement is based on other criteria not just breath and giddyness.

  11. […] Trevor Mallard at Red Alert is seeking feedback on two issues: […]

  12. MikeE says:

    There is a high correlation of those who have had drugs in their bloodstream and crashes, but correlation and presence do not equal cause.

    I’m sure that if Alcohol stayed in the bloodstream as long as THC and other substances, that you would get an massive figure as well.

    Back when BZP was legal, you would haev it in the blood stream for days after, but there was no impairment. I’d suggest it would be the same for other illicit drugs such as MDMA (Class B) and class A substances.

    The fact is though, that most class A susbtances aren’t in wide use in NZ, so this would pretty much only be a piece of legislation passed for PR purposes rather than actual effect.

    There are only a few drugs in NZ that we need worry about with their effects on driving, they are cannabis, alcohol, and meth. Then there are perscription medicines which could cause drowsyness. I’d be more than willing to wager though that driving while tired is far more dangerous and common than these (less alcohol) combined.

    I also fear that such random drug tests would be used by police for fishing expeditions, to execute search warrents for drug use/possession in the future etc, especially with regards to drugs which should be legal (i.e. those which are safer than Alcohol, such as cannabis, MDMA, BZP etc).

    Of course, its hard to have a proper discusson on drug laws in NZ, as politicans can’t discuss them openly and factually, for fear of scaring the “won’t someone think of the children brigade” and most know that its far more advantagous politically for them to appear “tough on drugs” than to have a proper sensible drug policy focused on harm reduction.

    Also, its worth noting that most of these drug tests (presence) require a blood test, which is a very invasive test.

    We should be testing people for impairment. And it shouldn’t matter if the drug is illegal or not, or even if a drug is involved. If someone is driving while impaired (i.e. tired, driving with a broken foot like the silly woman who rear ended me and couldn’t brake, or high as a kite) then they should be charged accordingly. But not simply for presence.

    Trev – Happy to discuss this in more detail, privately, off the blogs.

  13. ratbiter says:

    1 – I agree.

    2 – if the principle is the same (obtaining proof of mind-altering substances present in significant concentrations) then it seems irrational that the sample is available for alcohol testing but off-limits for other drugs.

    My inner redneck is much more interested in my right(?) to NOT be run over by some druggie driver, than in a user’s right to take recreational drugs unmolested by the cops!

  14. Gudday Trevor and good onya. The polydrug issue shouldn’t be limited to recreational drugs though. Many prescription medicines are contraindicated with alcohol, but these moots won’t penalise them any.

    The existence of drugs does not automatically lead to impairment. When it comes to polydrug interaction, it splits into very personal reactions depending on dose, timing and physiology. The hazard of multiplicative effect is dependent on excessive quantities combining, not mere presence. A pint and a toot is not going to have the same effect as a yardie during a bender.

    So the presence of other substances must be tempered with a threshold dependent on the harm of potential driving hazard. We already have blood alcohol limits and, as the NORML select committee submission cautiously approves, THC limits in the pipe. If other drugs are to be added to a driving impairment schedule, they should be matched with appropriate thresholds of harm.

    So, taking your example of a little drunk but high on P checkpoint stopper. If the threshold for P was higher than the threshold for blood alcohol, the former charge would trump. But there would have to be reasonable impartial grounds to seek a blood test and not just another fickle tool of hassle. A lot of caffeine drinkers would be very annoyed otherwise.

    Regarding your second point, are you suggesting that accident victims (not drivers) should be blanket blood tested for drugs at hospitalisation and criminally charged if positive?

  15. Trevor Mallard says:

    Will – No this is a transport issue – the only people tested and prosecuted would be drivers. There is lots of debate on quantity and trigger points but at the moment the technology is very much presence (active in blood) only. Remember for people who are able to do a test then there is an impairment test – a complicated version of the pre breath testing booze test – before a blood test.

  16. Nigel Chetty says:

    Hi Trevor

    Give Police the right to drug test the driver in question should they have reasonable grounds to believe that drugs may be also be a factor in the related driving offence. Clear guidelines for testing under “reasonable grounds” would have to be established.

    Making drug testing mandatory where a driver has simply failed an initial breath screening test will potentially lead to multiple steams of complications including legal and defense issues.

    Also bear in mind the monetary cost to tax payers as well as loss of time for Police. I’d much rather all that effort and time be concentrated and focused on resolving the back log of unsolved crimes and crime prevention where it really counts.

    It also wouldn’t be a fair argument to say that the cost could be recouped from the offenders as in reality most offenders simply can not afford to pay back costs little alone their actual fines for the offence. So the cost would once again become a burden on the state.


    Nigel Chetty

  17. George D says:

    I think that there are two issues here, which need to be separated. One is impairment, and the other is driving on drugs.

    Being on drugs can cause a degree of impairment, which is potentially very dangerous. Not all drugs will cause this – certain stimulants can increase responsiveness, and certain drugs will increase risk taking.

    I’d like to see a testing schedule that measures impairment with roadside testing, for those that appear impaired, and also those that an officer has suspicions about. This isn’t talking about walking the line, much more sophisticated testing is now available. If they fail the impairment test, they should be stopped from driving and then required to take a test.

    An impairment test isn’t just going to catch drugged drivers however. It’s also going to catch those who are too tired or sick to be driving, or are otherwise unfit to be behind the wheel. There is a pile of evidence that lack of sleep rapidly becomes more dangerous than drinking. It’s been in the too hard basket though, because it’s harder to test for, and doesn’t show up in the blood after an accident. In these cases, letting them drive would be foolish, and they should be stopped and then other arrangements should be made for their transport.

    All of this is a lot more ‘complicated’ than randomly performing blood tests on drivers. These will deliver results in days or weeks (or even months, if there is backlog), and which are likely to miss a large number of drugs (testing for many drugs is prohibitively expensive). But it will result in safer roads.

  18. I politely but firmly disagree with you on it merely being a transport issue, Trevor. It is also a Misuse of Drugs matter. This is partly caused by the merger of transport and general policing back in the 90s.

    At present, if someone is stopped at a checkpoint and the police have reasonable cause to suspect the presence of illicit substances, they can use the MODA to search the vehicle and the occupants without obtaining a warrant. Perversely, the status quo may encourage ingestion to avoid arrest by the driver! A similar thing happened at the Big Day Out in Oz earlier this year.

    As for effective detection of active substances, I gather the committee has been looking at Oraline ( and other methods to accurately gauge current intoxication. It sounds like there’s some very robust debate around this!

  19. Ben says:

    I am not sure that number 1 is much of an issue Trevor. If I remember right the penalty for drugged driving will be the same as the penalty for drunk driving. Therefore if you can get them on the drunk driving charge (via having failed a breath test) then the road safety objective of penalizing them and removing them from the road has already been met. Pursuing drugs after this point is just placing a lot more time requirements upon the police (probably lowering the amount of testing they can do for alcohol, a much more common drug) and really is moving away from transport issues and more into drug enforcement.

    As for issue number 2, there may be bill of rights issues related to just taking blood for drugs testing at the hospital. The scientific evidence for blood concentrations of alcohol and their impairing effects is strong. This means there is sufficient justification to search blood samples for impairment.

    However this is not the case for the majority of other drugs (a matter I have extensively researched as a sideline of my PhD studies in Road Safety). Therefore there is the requirement to fail a road-side impairment test before the blood test is taken for drugs (you have proven you are impaired, now we will check if it is from drugs). So the proof goes impaired -> blood test (whereas the proof in a hospital case would be blood test -> assume impaired). In the case of an accident there is not necessarily any proof when the person shows up at the hospital that they were impaired (they may have simply been unlucky) therefore you are potentially running foul of breaching the rights of the individual by taking evidential blood samples with no just cause (since the science is not clear cut on the impairment effects of many drugs).

  20. Rachael says:

    Hello Trevor. Firstly you are incorrect to think class A are the real problems as use is less common & some don’t impair. The evidence base for P as a road safety issue globally is weakest (it is post intoxication fatigue that usually features in crashes), although misused opioids particularly taken with abused tranquillisers are a medium level drug drive issue here. The evidence is for cannabis as the biggest killer in 3 circumstances in NZ and globally is actually strongest.

    Firstly use in combination with alcohol when consumed UNDER the proposed new limit of 0.5 (the MOST common drug combination found in dead drivers in NZ – even more common than sole alcohol no other suspect drug only coming in at 14%), secondly within approx 3 hours of use, thirdly in combination with high blood alcohol eg twice the limit. Dr Bailey at ESR identified that alcoholic drivers had become non purists a decade ago. This one common cannabis thread explains why dead NZ drivers with alcohol in them (any level) now have much higher risk ratings and culpability in crashes than the classic early days alcohol only studies would lead us to expect them to.

    In answer to question 1 – not drug testing alcohol positives was Australias no 1 mistake & one we must not replicate. The reason they did this was so they could issue speeding type instant fines to more people between 0.5-0.8 without hassles of criminal charges. The result as their Police complained was cannabis users who might have mixed giving them 45x normal crash risk getting a free pass (small instant fine). Despite being a shark equal in risk to someone at high blood alcohol they were treated as whitebait & drive on.

    The result I believe from news reports is drug users having a small swig (under Oz limit) to get a positive reading for alcohol and dodge drug tests. Even low alcohol with cannabis is high risk. The no test if a whiff of alcohol is detected is the exact wrong response. It lets people off who should prolly be treated as high alcohol drivers (due to phenomenal) risk ratings and be instantly suspended.

    The Misuse of drugs schedule is not a good fit for drug drive legoislation – its upside down with the biggest concern placed in class c. ountries with good recent drug legislation include a specific target drug list for road police in their transport act.

    I know Labour tried to progress this bill but that the greens had them over a barrel, with cannabis & its users being a sacred cow causing fatal delays in this legislation -I call it premeditated murder. Fear of undue persecution or persecuting need not be a concern if age appropriate cannnabis saliva / blood levels are used or pupillometry screening tests are used before moving to evidential blood tests. Research due out of the States will shortly show how closely saliva tests corelate to blood levels also.

    Regarding testing in hospitals I do not believe anyone found with class a in their blood should be prosecuted. Class a as above isn’t the big issue – its cannabis &/or alcohol. It is also more difficult on science to prove it impaired. There would need to be levels showing likely raised risk as used by the US trucking industry if use was sole, and a “combined influence” charge if a person had several drugs in low quantities that were likely to have acted multiplicatively.

    It is essential to target the groups with drug types and use patterns that are causing the harm – not ones that aren’t. Its not hard to work it out – there are country differences, but NZ issues are long understood.

    The European Road Safety Observatory of the UN recommends
    1. Mandatory blood tests for deceased drivers for a set of psychoactive drugs (5-6 bad offenders are recommended)
    2. Ditto above for all involved drivers surviving fatal crashes, or use of the saliva drug test alongside alcohol breath tests
    3. The same mandatory tests for all active road users involved in fatal accidents and eventual extension to all injury crashes.

    An ER Dr has just been telling me how often they treat. children just in car crashes and with neglect/abuse injuries whose parents who’d landed them there wreak of pot. Staff can not understand why the State is so shy about drug issues. It was refreshing naivety from one not knee deep in the political game!

  21. Sam Vilain says:

    Whew! What an emotive argument. So Rachel you are behind the Candor group then, a group aimed to reduce drug driving. I am interested in actual evidence against DUIC and perhaps you have some; I looked on your site and all I could find was a study which was qualitative, subjective and biased (is a “low decile” selection method representative of the population?).

    Let’s look at a larger (10x more subjects) over the Tasman, as reported on this excellent article on DUIC:

    “a large Australian study of 2,279 nonfatally injured drivers[…] found cannabis-only subjects to be marginally less culpable than drug-free drivers.”

    “a Canadian review noted that, while cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug and there is evidence of it moderately impairing driver performance, epidemiological data fails to show it is a major contributor to traffic crashes.”

    “Researchers found that, where alcohol was more expensive and harder to obtain, and cannabis less interdicted (i.e. decriminalised for medical purposes), those aged between 18–24 would substitute cannabis for alcohol and that, in these circumstances, driver injury and death would reduce.”

    I don’t claim to have researched this topic in depth, but you must admit these findings undermine at least the crazen veracity of your argument, if not the argument itself.

  22. Sam Vilain says:

    Candor I just saw your retort to that article, and have done some more reading of the references you refer to (well, the abstracts available online) such as the 2004 Drummer paper.

    I think I may end up changing my position when I read abstracts such as this:

    Improvements in research methodology, technology and laboratory testing methods have occurred in the last 10 years. These cast doubt on earlier results and conclusions. Studies now show that cannabis has a significant impairing effect on driving when used alone and that this effect is exaggerated when combined with alcohol.

    Emergency Medicine. 14(3):296-303, September 2002.
    O’Kane, Carl J 1; Tutt, Douglas C 1,2; Bauer, Lyndon A 1

  23. Mike Mckee says:

    I’ve polled the neighbourhood and 24 people out or 30 say yes if the test is quick and painless test for drugs when you test for alcohol.
    5 say no.
    1 is undecided and would want more info, so i directed her to this blog.

    so there you have it Trev Eastern Suburbs 24/30 so go for it.

    FYI a few brought up workplace testing and I must say if you want to have a go at drugs (that is if you’re serious) let parliament set the example.
    there was some mirth at the thought of that actually happening.
    yes for testing for drugs and alcohol whilst at work!
    most felt you should take the lead not just write laws.
    hope this helps from the streets.

  24. Rachael says:

    Hi Sam Vilain, It is easy to be misled by bulk early unsophisticated research perpetrated by Phds like Grotenherman (Medical cannabis president) and Gieringer (Norml activist, and their many research cronies with strong interest in cannabis law reform. But there are literally bucketloads of more recent authoritative independent research showing it is a significant road hazard. It has been slow to permeate the academic world as with any new evidence base. The science is complex but initially cannabis risk averages were artificially deflated by inclusion of sobre pot users in studies. Now we have better testing tech and smarter studies structured of late the paradigm has completely changed.

    I see the vested interests in quota based road safety (speed / alcohol) and research projects being funded re these subjects alone are busy here trying to ensure the new law does not allow drug testing of hospitalised drivers as proposed – as this would provide confirmatory evidence re the scope of the problem. Much is already available but this would allow ongoing problem monitoring as well as evaluation of effects of any anti drug driving initiatives. Their worst nightmare- as many wish to sweep any drug harms under carpet.

  25. Rachael says:

    PS – there is too much research in last couple of years to put on website (its more Keep it Simple than for academic research) but we have commissioned a review which will shortly be available, we forwarded 50 odd recent compelling studies to the scientist in the States doing this – in a nutshell though they show risk areas exist as per prior post, and harm in NZ closely rivaling drink drive harm.

  26. aucklandgp says:

    Agree with you on both 1 and 2 Trevor.

  27. Trevor Mallard says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments – while i am happy for the discussion to continue I’ve had a good talk with colleagues informed by blog responses – the legisalation will be up in the house over the next few weeks.

  28. […] blog is a bit like those on drug driving, mall opening and education ownership. It is designed to elicit feedback to help build […]

  29. […] in Red Alert’s history I blogged on drug driving. The feedback was taken on board as

  30. Dr Lorna Fox says:

    Dear Trevor,
    I have been searching for information about driving and opioid use in New Zealand, and your blog came up. I would very much like to know what the select committee is discussing re prescribed medications with sedative side effects and driving. for example, most analgesic drugs used in chronic or persistent pain ( classes b,c and non classified such as antidepressants, anti-epileptics etc) have potentially sedative side effects in many patients. The standard advice is to not drive if you are feeling sedated, as this seems to be all that the LTSA requires. We are in a double blind here,as severe pain can be just as distracting as the sedation caused by the drugs. The New Zealand Pain Society and the ANZCA Faculty of Pain Medicine , plus Palliative care organisations all may wish to have an input into your discussion..if only we could find a way in to them! Please contact me for details about how the Australians do it, and other information. kind regards, Lorna

  31. greg says:

    Trevor ive smoked cannabis since i was 15 and a licence holder im now 40 ive never had an accident in a motor car .Whats the real issue here and the real goal of the police .I can see them targeting certain people that weather they pass the road side test or not will be told they have failed which opens the forbidden breach of basic human rights and will build the national dna
    database on all new zealanders .This will be in line with the UNs international mandate on drugs and organised crime
    these laws give the Police far to many powers to abuse and mark my words they will as there is far to much corruption in our police force as it is without giving them the right at there discretion to take our DNA .As there is a clause in the laws to keep and retest blood samples for research perposes. Lets get real here limits of drugs in your blood need to be set just like alcohol ive smoked drugs all my life every day am not impaired while driving at all .
    mind you whos going to listen not the Government IE: smacking laws .These laws are a dogs breakfast

  32. trvis says:

    I think this is the first lifetime ban without a warning. Go away and don’t come back. Trevor

  33. Disturbed says:

    Well, the bigger issue is why do we not treat the police force to drug testing?
    If there is resisitance, what message does that send the general public. This needs to be put to the test.
    Also, for basic marijuana arrests and imprisonment, given the lack of proof regards social harm (show the evidence if you dare)…stop building prisons and release some human right’s cases. This GOVT continually amazes me with retoric and contradiction. Try this for size, start a campaign…randon drug testing for police applicants/officers…….what say the police Commisioner to this challenge, prove your not hippocrits and take the tests!