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Byron Shire
July 20, 2024

A third of region’s drivers test ‘false positive’ after roadside swipes

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NSW police conducting roadside testing in Lismore. (Darren Coyne)
NSW police conducting roadside testing in Lismore. (Darren Coyne)

Darren Coyne

More than a third of northern rivers drivers who tested positive to roadside drug tests in a recent statewide police operation were deemed ‘false positives’ after re-testing again in mobile buses.

That’s according to figures obtained by the Echonetdaily this week, following Operation Saturation, a statewide initiative between the NSW Centre for Road Safety and the Traffic and Highway Patrol Command.

The operation began on 9 June 2015 and ran until 6 July 2015.

Upon its completion, NSW Police issued a media release detailing some of the results of the operation.

Acting assistant commissioner Stuart Smith of the Traffic and Highway Patrol Command was quoted saying the main focus of the operation were ‘those speeding, drink or drug driving, distracted by a mobile phone, and not wearing a seatbelt or proper helmet’.

Given the recent controversial introduction of widespread roadside drug testing in the northern rivers area, Echonetdaily requested a breakdown of the drug-driving arrests.

After initially being told the figures were unavailable, a spokesman finally provided figures for the Richmond and Byron/Tweed Local Area Commands.

Statewide figures have not yet been provided.

The figures showed that during the month-long campaign, a total of 1,376 drug swabs were administered.

Of those, 174 drivers were deemed to be positive once tested again in the mobile testing bus.

No, it's not a coffee capsule machine, it's the new Drager Drug Test 5000 being used by police in the northern rivers. (file pic)
No, it’s not a coffee capsule machine, it’s the new Drager Drug Test 5000 being used by police in the northern rivers. (file pic)

But the figures also showed that 72 drivers, who initially tested positive to the drug wipe, were then deemed to be ‘false positives’ when tested again in the bus.

A spokesman from NSW Police media contacted the Echonetdaily this morning asking that the false positive figures be withheld from publication as those results were still subject to further testing in a laboratory.

Echonetdaily refused the request.

Lismore solicitor Steve Bolt said the ‘great mischief’ was that the testing regime was picking up very low levels of THC.

‘To test positive then negative it may be that there is THC in your saliva but possibly only a trace,’ he said.

‘That’s consistent with recent cases of people telling the court that they hadn’t smoked for a number of days.

‘So people are being charged on the basis of THC being detected but not on whether there is impairment.

‘That charge would be driving under the influence of a drug.’

‘This law and testing should be about road safety and it’s not. People are being punished just by having to go to court.

‘There are also issues of people being unfairly targeted because police don’t require any particular reason to stop the car so the term random is unfortunate,’ Mr Bolt said.

Echonetdaily has spoken with a number of drivers who have been subjected to roadside drug testing, have returned positive results, but claim to have not smoked cannabis for days.

Some drivers have then been pulled over again within days for a ‘random’ test.

One driver, visiting from South Australia, who asked to remain anonymous, was recently put off the road for 24 hours after testing positive.

About a week later, the same driver was again pulled over for a drug test after being followed by a highway patrol car, which had been heading in the opposite direction.

The driver asked the police officer whether his vehicle had been flagged as a result of the previous test, and claims that the officer finally admitted that it had.

The driver refused another test, admitting to the officer that he used cannabis tincture for an injured back, and was allowed to proceed without being tested.

The NSW Greens party recently put a freedom of information request to NSW Police in an attempt to determine the science behind the testing regime.

The Hemp Embassy at Nimbin has also been highly critical of the testing regime, saying it unfairly targeted cannabis users.

Hemp Embassy president Michael Balderstone said people were angry because the new drug testing equipment being used was extremely sensitive and detected cannabis traces days after use, regardless of whether the driver was impaired or not.

The testing devices do not detect opiates or pharmaceutical medications, which are known to impair driving.

‘They trebled this roadside testing to catch ice. But how many dolphins (cannabis users) are being caught in their shark nets?

‘We need an urgent inquiry into this testing. No other country is testing like this. In fact in states overseas where cannabis has been legalized, there has been a 10 per cent drop in car accidents, as well as alcohol use.’

‘We’re the easy bust. It’s easily the least harmful and safest and people are using other drugs that they won’t get tested for.’

Echonetdaily has requested an interview with the officer in charge of Operation Saturation.

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  1. ‘Echonetdaily refused the request.’

    Why would you refuse the request to cooperate with the police? I guess the Echo’s not exactly playing on Team Australia. Must be something in the air.

    • Team Australia?
      Are you serious?
      What about the PEOPLE of Australia? Are they part of the team too?
      That’s the people who are being harassed and unfairly criminalized by an excessively restrictive regime in almost every area you care to name.
      The police have made themselves the enemy of the people by focusing excessively on revenue gathering in multiple ways instead of catching actual criminals.

    • Yeah team Australia. That’s the team I want to be on. The team where we let the police intimidate us out of freedom of information. Good on you mate I’m glad you’ve got all our best interests at heart

    • Are you for real? Team Australia? What is that? There’s team “Government” revenue raisers, which include the police ans the rest of us are just money making machines for them. You’re either a member of “Governemnt” team Australia or you are one of those brainless sheep that are responsible for corrupt Government and laws by voting them in.

  2. This is an important story: rubbish technology used to intimidate perfectly safe drivers. The alcohol model simply doesn’t work with cannabis and until there’s a way of calibrating it, the police should lay off ‘random’ testing. After all, they use their discretion in not running sniffer dogs in places where bankers, lawyers and brokers are using cocaine.

    • All the testing models in use not are unscientific when it comes to “impairment”.

      As for the science – no form of testing for anything involves the person doing a cytochrome P450 panel to test your liver metabolism genes. Without that you have no idea what the BASE level of function is in their drug metabolism. You don’t know if they are resistant to a given substance, totally unaffected by it, or unusually strongly effected and processes it out rapidly.

      None of out roadside testing involves testing for actual signs of impairment any more. This is a serious issue too. They also have no history of your person use, and the fact is that the human body acclimates to intoxicants, and reacts different according to their health and metabolism.

      Examples :

      If somebody out there has never touched an opiate or amphetamine, and is on one, they will be far more effected than the same person – IF they had taken such a thing regularly.

      A person in pain and on an opiate for it is not physically effected in the same manner as a person in no pain at all (and then we have the 20+ variations of the cytochrome P450 2D6 system). I would not want to be on the same road as a person with chronic pain, who was not on their medication, but they still need to be able to buy groceries and get to their doctor.

      A regular coffee or black tea drinker does not get all jittery from one or two cups.

      A regular beer drinker is not impaired by one beer.

      A “maintenance alcoholic” will function as a stone cold sober person ONLY with alcohol in their system. I would not want to be on the same road with such a person.

      A higher level end cannabis user (perhaps a person with a medical condition) could test high on THC and not be stoned at all because regular use turns off the chemical receptors for THC which cause a person to be “high” (but not the ones that give them medical help).

      A person who regularly has to use valium for muscle spasms will not be drowsy or otherwise impaired. Regular higher useof benzodiazepines (valium) – ie 24/7 use – cause the medication to slowly stop working after a couple of weeks, but it is still there to be detected.

      All people are held to the same legal standard, yet the facts are that no such simple standard could work as an accurate measure of “impairment”. The reason there is no attempt to fix this, is that proving driver “impairment” is not a requirement or a goal under the law. Finding impaired people and getting them off of the road until they are sober is a good goal. However this not the real goal. The goals are :

      1) raising state revue, because the state cannot tax, and they are not supplied with enough cash to survive without other sources of income. So “expiation notices” are predicted and figured into the states income. If people actually all stopped using everything they test for, stopped speeding, etc – then our states would have major budget shortfalls.

      2) the second goal is political. To be able to prove to the public that “something is being done to keep them safe”. This is again, the “politics of fear”.

      3) The right to harass drug users. Lets face it, a lot of our police officers joined up because they like having power over other people. Not all of course, but far too many of them have simply continue their school careers as bullies by getting a badge. They like having power and using it.

      • Great response…yes its true roadside drug testing does not take into consideration the phenomenon related to dependence and tolerance of alcohol and drugs.
        Isnt it about time it did.

  3. What is happening to Australia and Australians?

    We are giving up rights to privacy, freedom of expression, right to assemble and other freedoms most of the world takes for granted. There is not another developed nation on the planet where citizens have allowed their government to put in place such draconian practices.

    We’re also one of the very few nations without some form of a Bill of Rights. Hmm…

    Is there a link between restricted freedom and a lack of global success of our creative industries? Sure Aussie actors are doing well, but that’s a profession predicated on following orders. But internationally, in literature, filmmaking and art, we’re not coming close to the Americas, Scandinavia, the UK, Ireland or similar countries with a similar high standard of living, access to education and leisure time.

    Creativity and innovation are dying out at the same rate our freedoms and unfettered approach to life is…

    The government is doing a great job of creating a climate of fear; of shadowy “others”, ourselves, our own bodies, the roads, the internet and each other. Their payoff? A malleable citizenry scared shiteless of deviating from whatever norm the government of the day deems acceptable.

    So we lock ourselves in our overpriced houses and consume media and other products created by people overseas who feel free to live live, create, explore and express.

    So goes life in the Nanny State.

    “Boats are safest in harbour, but that’s not what they’re built for” – too bad it’s just a TV ad….

    It doesn’t need to be this way.

  4. When roadside drug testing was about to be introduced politicians stated it was about road safety ergo impairment and not catching cannabis users. Yet the legislation they passed is zero tolerance ergo about catching cannabis users and not just impairment. So either the politicians did not know their own legislation because they are lazy and / or incompetent or they deliberately lied.

  5. random swabs/tests are now being used to profile australians, you bet that any positives are cross referenced against your name and used as intel for possible further fishing expeditions by police as evidenced by the sth aus driver who was targeted,

    I have question, are the police using numberplate recognition as a broad reaching tool ? ie not just for expired rego checks?
    very scary if you think of all the roadside gantries with cameras on our roads that are gathering information of your movements 24/7

    • >are the police using numberplate recognition as a broad reaching tool ?

      Yes they are. Every time you drive by a police car they have an instant readout of your history. They might well have the speed camera watching for the regular movements of people. So if you are 50 and at 19 were done for simple assault (a fist fight after uni – stupid youth) they will treat you as a probable violent person. If you got caught having sex in the park while pissed, they get you for indecent acts in a public place (and now you are a “sex crim” to every copper you drive by). The REASONS for these things will not come up… only charges and convictions and driving records.

      If you have ever blown positive for anything then every time they see you, you will get pulled over and tested for everything. If you swabbed positive for pot once, and a drug van is around they will skip the saliva test. Saliva tests are about 1/3 false positives, about as much in false negatives. By skipping the cheep swab test and shoving you straight to the drugs van they throw away that 1/3 chance of a false positive. Also by using the test in the van they get a result for trace amounts which gives a positive reading anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks after. This means that because cannabis says in the body for so long, gives them a way to harass safe drives for extra state revenues- losing their licenses based on a thing they did a week ago, and of COURSE the nice fat expiation notice in the revenue coffers.

      Crime is supposed to be about ACTUAL HARM, not revenue.

  6. ‘That charge would be driving under the influence of a drug.’

    This is BS there is no such charge you get charged with.

    “Operating a motor vehicle with ‘drug’ present in saliva or blood’

    so there is no way out of it – doesn’t matter if you’ve used 1-2 weeks ago and are not impaired it’s still in your system and that’s what they charge you on.

    Even just touching it can give a false reading.



  7. Random testing is just the wrong description for this regime.
    “Targeted testing based on the biases of individual officers, now with added number plate owner database searching facilities” would be a better name…

  8. I was told by a police officer on my first and only test, that came up negative BTW, that each one of those plastic things cost $40 each!!!!!. Ok now times that by 1376 plus 174 in recent tallies and you get the whopping amount of $62,000 of tax payers money spent!!!!! Not to mention the 1550 bits of plastic now in our garbage tip!!!!

    What a waste of money, time and plastic regardless of the moral dilemma!

  9. Why don’t Australians take a stand and do anything to change the way we are controlled and repressed. Everyone complains about it but no one ever does anything! I personally write letters and complaints all the time and even just as one person, I get results. Obviously no as much as a result if I had 100 people behind me protesting the same thing, but there are others like me who write the letters and complain, and if everyone singularly did the same thing we would realise that all of our individual efforts make a difference. We don’t have to unite on a massive field and protest for any change to come about, each one of our letters we write join together and show force against a corrupt Government who’s only goal is to line their pockets and fund their lifestyles


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