ROAD TRANSPORT FORUM - Government commits to roadside drug testing

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Rather than the breath test that is used for alcohol, the drug test will be salivabased and will identify the presence of impairing recreational drugs such as THC (cannabis), methamphetamine, opiates, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), and benzodiazepines.

It seems like the last thing many New Zealanders want after the year we have had is an election. However, 17 October doesn’t just represent election day, it is also when we decide the fate of two referendums that are being held alongside it. The first of these, on the End of Life Choice Bill, is not directly of concern to the Road Transport Forum. However, the second, on the legalisation of the recreational use and production of cannabis, most definitely is. The proliferation of drug use, including cannabis, whether legal or illegal, has major implications for the road transport sector, both when it comes to the safety of our roads and in relation to workplace health and safety. When it comes to road safety, we know that cannabis and other impairing substances are a significant contributor to our road toll: in fact last year 103 people died in crashes on New Zealand roads where the driver was later found to have drugs in their system. Unsurprisingly, we are seeing an upward trend to this sort of impairment and it now surpasses those killed while driving with excess alcohol in their system.

It was therefore extremely pleasing, in what was one of the final acts of the 52nd Parliament, that the Labour-led Government introduced legislation to give police the power to conduct random roadside drug testing of drivers. Once passed, the law will allow police to undertake a roadside test to determine if drivers are under the influence of drugs, just as they do for alcohol. Rather than the breath test that is used for alcohol, the drug test will be saliva-based and will identify the presence of impairing recreational drugs such as THC (cannabis), methamphetamine, opiates, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), and benzodiazepines. The RTF has lobbied governments to institute roadside saliva-based drug testing for well over a decade so we commend Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter and Minister of Police Stuart Nash for the introduction of The Land Transport (Drug Driving) Amendment Bill that will enable it. Up until now government ministers have pointed to the practical difficulties with saliva testing, and while not all of those have been solved, this government’s emphasis on road safety has prompted it to undertake the background work required to inform the practical implementation of such a regime.

For that it should be congratulated. Regardless of the result of the cannabis referendum, all those involved in the transport industry should take a proactive interest in the progress of this Bill. The new law won’t be passed before the election and a lot of work is ahead of the 53rd Parliament to enact it, but I hope it will be one of the first cabs off the rank once the next government is formed. The RTF will actively support the Bill’s progress and will be requesting a hearing at the select committee stage. I’d encourage transport operators and other industry bodies to also consider making a submission. Please feel free to contact the RTF office if you require further advice and information on how to do this. Unfortunately, the impact of increasing drug use and the potential for law reform around cannabis has not prompted the same general concern amongst government and the general public when it comes to workplace health and safety. This is a shame, because a huge amount of progress has been made in this area in recent years. The previous National Government passed the Health and Safety at Work Act in 2015, which clarified a business’s primary duty of care, and introduced the now wellknown concept of the PCBU – a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ – that must ensure that workers and others are not put at risk.

Probably just as effective as the specific provisions in the Act was the national conversation and all-round education campaign that took place around it. Most New Zealanders would agree that this led to a real and positive culture change across a number of high-risk sectors. My concern is because impairment is such a significant risk to workplace safety that some of the advances we have made since 2015 could be compromised if we take too liberal an attitude to the recreational use of cannabis and other drugs. Liability for the impact of drug-impaired workers falls squarely on managers, boards and other PCBUs in a business, and despite the great work of drug testing organisations like TDDA, businesses are hamstrung by the inability to practically test regularly for staff impairment at work. Unfortunately, there seems no easy answer to this problem. While the government is appropriately addressing the issue of drugs on our roads, there is still a long way to go before we can be confident that workplaces are safe from the negative impact of recreational drugs.