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New Zealand moves toward roadside tests for meth —and cannabis

Posted on January 23rd, 2018 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , .

Shadow WatchA big push is on in New Zealand for a bill that would give police the power to conduct roadside saliva tests for methamphetamine, ecstasy (MDMA)—and cannabis. And the public face of the campaign to pass the legislation is Malcolm Barnett, who in 2005 lost his 18-year-old step-daughter to a road crash with a driver who was wasted on meth, or "P," as they call it in New Zealand.

The meth-fueled motorist in the case, who was convicted on manslaughter, drove 300 meters down the wrong side of the road before slamming into the car driven by young Krystal Bennett. Barnett is adamant that roadside saliva testing could have prevented his daughter's death. He urged legislators to "get something done... give police the power to do it."

Kiwi cops can already carry out a "compulsory impairment test," or CIT, on motorists suspected of being intoxicated. The saliva test—using something similar to the "potalyzer" device being developed here in the United States—would give them ability to chemically determine what a motorist has been using, and how much.

There are a few problems with this. One obvious one is that if someone is barreling down the road against the traffic for 300 meters, a test to see if the motorist is intoxicated is a little superfluous. But a more insidious problem is the way cannabis is being thrown in with methamphetamine. The write-up on the legislative push by the New Zealand news site Stuff even includes a public service video by the NZ Transport Agency warning against driving while high—on pot. It portrays a stereotypical stoner straight out of a Cheech & Chong routine slamming into another car while daydreaming after hitting on a bong.

But of course, nobody barrels down the road against the traffic for 300 meters while high on cannabis—or, if they do, it likely has little to do with the cannabis.

The whole question of "marijuana-impaired driving" is widely misunderstood. For instance, it is true that Colorado has seen an increase in road fatalities since legalization in 2012, as well as an increase in cannabis-related driving offenses. But the increase in fatalities is consistent with the national trend in the US, and probably related to more people being on the roads due to low oil prices. A 2011 study found a reduction in traffic fatalities in states that had legalized medical marijuana. This is likely because folks have been turning to legal cannabis instead of alcohol—which impairs driving far more dramatically than pot (or, needless to say, meth). 

Paul Armentano, deputy director for the US cannabis advocacy group NORML, has expressed skepticism about the very concept of a "potalyzer," saying: "We don't have a consensus as to what levels of THC are consistently correlated with behavioral impairment."

In fact, it was on this basis that Massachusetts' top court in September struck down evidence based on police "sobriety tests" for driving under influence of cannabis. The court stated that while there is clear scientific evidence that CIT-type field sobriety tests can be used to measure blood alcohol content of at least 0.08%, no scientific evidence exists showing a correlation between performance on these tests and "marijuana intoxication."

A recent study from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that high drivers are actually much safer than those who drive drunk. The Washington Post summarized the study thusly: "After adjusting for age, gender, race and alcohol use, drivers who tested positive for marijuana were no more likely to crash than who had not used any drugs or alcohol prior to driving."

It may be politically taboo, but it is science. Sorry.

We mean no disrespect to Malcolm Barnett, or trivialization of his horrific loss. But conflating cannabis with meth, or assuming there is any scientific standard for cannabis-related impairment on the road (as there is for aclohol) just doesn't add up. This is irrational stigma being used to expand police powers to snoop on the most intimate chemical level.

That said, road safety is certainly a question that every cannabis user should take very seriously. It is incumbent upon all users to know how cannabis affects their driving skills, know their limits, and always err on the side of caution. Responsible use is the first line of defense against this kind of ill-informed propaganda.

Cross-post to High Times

Photo by Hammer51012  

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