Why Mobile Drug Testing (MDT) tests for virtue, not impairment

The technology catches people who may not represent any enhanced risk to road safety

If a pedestrian failed a similar random drug test on the street, would they technically represent as much of a threat to road safety as some of the people who failed the test in their car?

If a pedestrian failed a similar random drug test on the street, would they technically represent as much of a threat to road safety as some of the people who failed the test in their car?

If you’ve shuddered at NSW police’s sinister new advert regarding Mobile Drug Testing, you’re not alone. There is strong evidence that the technology used to perform these tests does not identify driving impairment but acts instead as a “virtue test” that can capture people who simply 'smoked a joint' more than a week earlier. But is this what the tests are supposed to do? Which drugs aren’t being tested for and why? How does the reality compare with what the public being told? Claire Connelly finds out.

Experts have warned against the “campaign of misinformation” on the roadside mobile drug testing operations currently taking place across the country.

State police recently launched a crackdown on motorists driving under the influence with the invention of new portable Mobile Drug Testing devices.

In addition to a roadside breathalyser, drivers can now be tested for the presence of cannabis, MDMA and methamphetamine.

However, experts say that the method for determining impairment is “not ideal”.

MDT do not test for impairment

The current state of mobile drug testing does not measure for impairment. Rather motorists are simply tested for the presence of drugs.

Page four of the police Standard Operating Procedure document released by the NSW Police Force Information Access Unit reads: “The program does not infer impaired driving or driving a motor vehicle under the influence of a drug. This program detects the presence of an illicit drug in a subject’s oral fluid.”

Andrew Sarson, founder and managing director of Australian diagnostic service, Drug Smart told IDG he has done a lot of control test with the products both in his capacity of at Drug Smart, and as a medical student at Western Sydney University and attested that “they work quite well

“The likelihood of a false positive is very slim,” he said.

However, the founder warned that the tests cannot discriminate between impairment, drug use and the time of use in relation to their impairment.

“There is no direct correlation between the result and how impaired you are by it,” he said. “You could hold the drug in your mouth, spit it out and still be detected with the drug in your system within minutes.”

Why only three?

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Though the portable drug testing device - known as the Dräger 5000 - is capable of testing for all sorts of drugs, including cocaine, prescription painkillers and benzodiazepine, current operating procedure is to only test for cannabis, methamphetamine and MDMA.

“Someone can be pulled over on a roadside drug test, be literally drugged up to their eyeballs on cocaine and benzos, administer the test and be given the all clear to drive,” said NSW Greens MP, David Shoebridge. “The police will literally wave you through. How is that a rational road safety campaign?”

“These classes of drugs can already be picked up by the existing Dräger 5000 equipment, they just choose not to,” he said.

Transport Minister Duncan Gay claims that the current mobile drug testing at the roadside cannot detect cocaine.

“The technology does not allow for it,” he said in Parliament on the 23rd of February this year.

He also said that if police can require anyone suspected of a cocaine or benzo impairment, they can require a driver to undergo a blood and urine test “and they do.”

"Let me be very clear that these drivers on cocaine or other drugs will not go undetected or unpunished regardless of where they are from," he said.

IDG contacted NSW Police to find out the truth behind these claims and were directed to Roads and Transport, which, after commenting, directed us back to the police.

“The NSW Government takes a zero tolerance approach to drug driving,” said Bernard Carlon, executive director for Road Safety.

“Based on medical research and the manufacturers’ specifications of the device we use for MDT, cannabis can be detected at the roadside in oral fluid for up to 12 hours after use, depending on the quantity and potency consumed.

“A positive MDT does not by itself prove the offence – samples are sent to a laboratory where a highly-accurate testing machine confirms the result. Around 97 per cent of samples collected from drivers who have tested positive to a roadside MDT are confirmed positive in the laboratory.

“People aren’t charged until the results are confirmed in the laboratory and those with samples that don’t return positive laboratory tests are not charged.”

Class war

Shoebridge describes the current state of Mobile Drug Testing operation as a highly politicised “zero tolerance extension on the war on drugs dressed up as road safety.”

“It’s a class war,” he said.

Shoebridge maintains cocaine, benzos and prescription painkillers are “middle to upper class drugs” which the police and Coalition are reticent to prosecute on.

“There are people driving on our roads with enormously high levels of these drugs in their system and nobody is checking,” he said.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey reports that drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and methamphetamines have been on the decline since 2004 while the proportion of people using cocaine has been increasing since the same year, particularly those aged between 20–29 and 30–39.

“Cocaine use in Australia is currently at the highest levels yet seen,” the report said.

While people aged 50 years or older have generally held the lowest rates of illicit drug use, this same age group has experienced the largest increase in use of illicit drugs, 8.8% to 11.1% for those aged 50–59 and from 5.2 to 6.4% for those aged 60 or older, the report states.

However it also found Cannabis to be the most common illicit drug used by almost all sectors of the population. The report found marijuana and methamphetamine users were more likely to use these drugs on a regular basis with most people using them at least every few months (64% and 52% respectively) while ecstasy and cocaine use was more likely to be infrequent, with many users only using the drug once or twice a year (54% and 71% respectively).

Campaign of misinformation

Greens MP David Shoebridge also warned against the accuracy of information coming out of the minister's office, the police and the centre for roads and safety after they publicly claimed drug users would be clear to drive again after 24 hours.

The Transport Minister Duncan Gay even went so far as to say that “cocaine stays in a person's system for about six minutes to one hour, making it difficult to detect within the current New South Wales oral fluid test,” in Parliament, advice he says he received from the Centre for Road Safety.

Shoebridge says the MDT’s are already highlighting cases where people who have waited an excess of a week before getting behind the wheel and are still failing the test.

Nearly 5000 NSW motorists were charged with drug-driving offences between July 2014 and June last year, according to newly-released freedom of information documents.

“When people are getting false and misleading information from authoritative government sources and rely upon that in their decision making, they fail the test, land up in front of a magistrate, then what more can you do to argue against a genuine mistake of fact?,” he said. “It’s an enormous problem for police.”

Shoebridge claims there have already been four or more court-cases on Australia’s north coast where these issues were raised and says there is a backlog of cases “queuing up behind them” due to adjourned cases, the judgements of which the NSW police are looking to challenge.

The mobile drug testing operation was a $6 million government tender over 4 years to 2018, and that’s just for the devices. On top the costs for drug testing vehicles, police man hours in court, the magistrate, a police prosecutor, court costs, Sarson and Shoebridge concur that the cost to tax-payers ranges into the millions of dollars.

“What would be really useful is if NSW police lifted their eyes above their navel and get the international evidence on this growing body of research,” Shoebridge said.

The UK recently implemented new drug driving legislation based on the report prepared by Kim Wolff, professor of addiction science at King’s College London, and a panel of experts. The legislation specifies 15 controlled drugs as well as the threshold for which a user can be considered over the limit. The threshold varies according to the type and amount of drug consumed.

Critics claim Shoebridge and his ilk are making mountains out of molehills, and that anyone who agrees must be living comfortably in the pocket of the “pro-drugs” lobby. But even the most casual, illicit-drug takers have cause to be concerned if they are unable to measure their own ‘body purity’ before getting behind the wheel – the potential for having their lives ruined despite representing no enhanced threat to road safety is very real. The only current option to ensure you’re safe from mobile drug testing is don’t take any illegal drugs or don’t drive, which is not necessarily the most realistic approach to drug safety on the roads.

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