Channel Nine’s A Current Affair has labelled Lismore the drug-driving capital of Australia, but even the show’s reporter admits it’s ‘not that straight forward’.
In a segment aired last night, reporter Steve Marshall visited Lismore on a day when 46 people appeared in Lismore Local Court charged with drug driving.
He pointed out that on another occasion, around 70 people appeared on the court list to face the same charge.
Traffic and Highway Patrol Command Acting Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith told the program in no uncertain terms that ‘if you’ve got drugs in your system you shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a car’
But in a twist for the controversial (and some would say unbalanced) current affairs program, the segment put forward some points that would no doubt please local activists.
Mr Marshall pointed out the while the tests used by police are capable of testing for a range of illicit substances, they only test for cannabis, methamphetamine and MDMA.
Police do not test for cocaine, which is widely regarded as a rich person’s drug. Nor do police test for prescription medication, despite Commander Smith saying ‘if you’ve got drugs in your system you shouldn’t be driving’.
Commander Smith maintained that the region was a hotspot for accidents involving drug-impaired drivers, but gave no details on what actual drugs had been the cause of accidents.
The report also pointed out that the region had virtually no public transport, so people had little option to drive to meet work and family commitments.
With police now able to conduct so called ‘random’ roadside tests, more and more people using cannabis are expected to be caught up in the net.
Hemp Embassy president Michael Balderstone, a major critic of the drug testing regime, told the program that ‘every time I drive there’s a risk of being pulled over’.
But Mr Balderstone argued that many cannabis users who used the herb daily would be more dangerous if they were denied their medicine.
The program also focused on the common criticism of the regime … that it only tests for the presence of drugs, not levels of impairment as roadside alcohol testing does.
Mr Marshall pointed out that impairment tests were available, but cost $600, as opposed to the $49 tests being used by police.
One man interviewed outside the Lismore courthouse, who claimed to have smoked 12 hours before driving, described the tests as ‘horseshit’, and said the government needed to sort it out.
Another man, who had been pulled over nine times in 12 months, explained that he used cannabis to treat pain from an injury.
‘These tests are destroying people. They’ve destroyed me,’ he said.
Another man, who said he did not even smoke cannabis yet tested positive to the substance, said the testing was unfair.
‘I got a two year behaviour bond for a drug that they say was in my blood when I don’t smoke marijuana … it’s not fair,’ the man said.
At a forum at the Tatts Hotel in Lismore on the day A Current Affair was in town, Lismore solicitor Steve Bolt said there was confusion about how long cannabis stays in a person’s system.
Mr Bolt pointed to the government’s own road safety website which maintains that cannabis can be detected up to 12 hours after ingesting, but said many people appearing in court had smoked days, even weeks before being busted.
In a case that made national headlines, magistrate David Heilpern recently found a man not guilty after he told the court he not smoked for nine days but still tested positive.
The program also referenced the argument that the drug testing regime was effectively stifling the potential multi-million hemp food industry in the state.
And while the segment ended with ‘Sarah, mother of four’, who smoked cannabis in her 20s, arguing that the ‘bottom line is it’s hugely dangerous’, her appeal for zero tolerance is unlikely to sway those calling for change.
Greens MLC David Shoebridge is leading the push for such change, and promised the Lismore forum that he and Greens MP Tamara Smith would be pushing for an inquiry into the drug testing regime when parliament resumes.