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Byron Shire
March 28, 2023

Cannabis testing unjust? Make your vote count

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Police stopping, searching and testing drivers on their way into Byron Bay.
Photo Jeff ‘Cannotabis’ Dawson

Ron Priestly

Throughout 2018 there was a significant increase in police highway patrol activity in the northern rivers that has disturbed many residents.

While not objecting to increased police road safety efforts it is the nature of the Random Drug Test (RDT) applied by police that is causing concern. The problem is the so-called saliva test or ‘spit test’ that is being used does nothing to detect cannabis- impaired driving – it merely detects the presence of cannabis. The cannabis involved may have been used days before the test and there is no evidence that such historic use causes impaired driving.

Unfair and unproven test

When Andrew Gee MP was a senior National Party member of the NSW right-wing government he wrote to me stating that, ‘It does not matter if they (the drivers) appear to be unaffected by the drugs. The “mere presence” of the drugs establishes the offence’. He goes on to say ‘a driver can be charged… no matter how high or low (the THC reading)’.

Police cars lined up outside a local police station.
Photo Ron Priestly

Impairment disregarded

This is completely different from the alcohol test that establishes a level where impaired driving is likely. Also, the RDT ‘spit test’ differs from many Western countries that have a more expensive cannabis test that does detect actual impairment. Perhaps there is a cost problem leading to the use of cheaper unjust ‘presence only’ testing.

Numerous north coast residents, often the young, are being convicted when there has been no impaired driving. Drivers are banned, jobs are lost, foreign travel gets difficult and criminal records are created disadvantaging the victim for life when the driver has done nothing wrong!

Not the intent of the legislation

There is no public transport alternative when a licence is lost. Local magistrate David Heilpern has stated that when the law was introduced, ‘Parliament did not intend to stop people driving or take away their licences three days or six days after they consumed cannabis’; but this is what is happening. The Greens said ‘these judgments were further proof of the government’s “evidence-free” approach to drug policing’.

Protests against the unfair test

A local group called the ‘nth coast RDT locations’ has attracted some 19,817 members to its Facebook page. Numbers are increasing at the rate of 200 per month. The stated aim of the group is to ‘help stop the unfair and unproven testing regime’. The area they cover is basically the state electorates of Tweed, Lismore, and Ballina, which together have 170,000 voters. With nearly 20,000 members, the group represents a not insignificant nearly 12 per cent of the voters.

Enrol to vote

Campaigners for the next NSW election are hoping that disgust with the unjust testing regime will unseat local National Party members who are behind this injustice. The Nationals hold Tweed and Lismore by only around 2,500 votes. With the expected swing against the Liberal/National coalition it would only take, say, a further 500 votes in each seat out of the 20,000 members for the Nationals to lose both seats.

Campaigners are encouraging complaining drivers to enrol and vote. The Greens hold Ballina and have already come out opposing the unfair test. In Ballina the Nationals’ challenge to the sitting Greens would fail if the Tweed/Lismore swing and protest vote is duplicated.

Intense police activity: burden to taxpayers

The police activity involves some seven to ten fast, brightly coloured highway patrol sedans, RBT/RDT testing vans, local 4WDs and paddy wagons, motor bikes, testing costs, mobile speed cameras, and some 20-plus personnel. It is estimated to be worth $100,000 per week: a sum far in excess of total fines recovered and a burden to the taxpayer.

The squad appears to operate mainly during daylight hours. It seems to focus on Byron Bay, Nimbin, Casino, and Lismore but can appear anywhere for a day; bailing up a whole town and randomly stopping anyone they do not like the look of. The full squad appears to be around more than 50 per cent of the time.

Heavy surveillance on north coast

The north coast sadly attracts a disproportionate amount of this heavy surveillance compared with the rest of NSW. Many locals believe it is the NSW right-wing government’s revenge for the successful anti-fracking protests. Interestingly, the full might of the squad does not seem to be used when mainstream events such as Melbourne Cup or New Years Eve occur – instead it focuses on festivals. This focus is leading to an increased anger and a growing divide between drivers and police.

European equivalent

Nothing like this level of police presence happens in other western countries. Overseas visitors are amazed at the level of police activity endured.

I travelled 17,000km by car over four months this year, visiting the UK and seven European Union countries, and I never once saw a roadblock or random search.

New Zealand police have recently studied the unjust NSW regime but there has been no decision to impose this horror on their citizens.

The Echo was founded some 33 years ago to highlight excessive, aggressive police raids on domestic properties. Sadly, all these years later, nothing seems to have changed. Perhaps we need a yellow vests movement here?

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    • In response to Blue’s comment 1 above:
      Friends in France inform me the yellow vest is a mass movement by a large percentage of the population fed up with a government run for elites and not the people. It is particularly concerned to address an ever increasing disparity in wealth. I am told that the reports of the movement being violent are slanted and cover up the extent of popularity of the movement. Some suggest the violence is deliberately seeded to facilitate misrepresentation. Who can say, but it does seem to be a fringe aspect and certainly out of context with the broad motivation. Alternative media may be more representative of what is actually going on.
      My friends feel it is overwhelmingly positive that the people are uniting against an oppressive, unrepresentative government, and that streets all over France are filled with yellow vests worn by all demographics.
      I support the people exercising their voice in the many peaceful ways, apparently not reported in the MSM.

    • No, and neither do the yellow vests in France. As in virtually all televised ‘riots’ the police are the ones to start the aggression for the cameras

    • Funny hippys want to be exempted from a crime.

      I think we can agree that the police are chartered to enforce the law – which means arresting and charging druggies along with other criminals. Whining that you don’t want to be randomly drug tested and comparing it with alcohol which is perfectly legal is too funny.

      Would you whinge about police arresting people carrying illegal firearms around in their car boots if it was known this was a common issue in the area ?

      Stoners are too cool for the law man…

      • That’s what this entire movement is about.
        The fact that the government ban of cannabis is unfair and the current drug testing procedures are unjust. Did you actually read the article before commenting?

      • The 1st mistake in your argument is justifying or discrediting something on the basis of it’s legal status. Laws don’t define morality and unjust laws should not be followed or enforced. Secondly comparing it to alcohol is very practical means to decide where to draw the line. Clearly someone who has recently used either alcohol or weed is impaired to some degree. Alcohol is easy to test for impairment with blood or breathalyzer testing because concentrations dissipate rather quickly and are a good judge of how impaired a person is. THC is different and harder to test for impairment someone who just smoked and is high as a kite may test lower levels of THC than a chronic user who hasn’t fired one up in a week. I would argue that a field sobriety test would be the only reliable way to test for impairment. Sure some people who are somewhat impaired may slip through, but that’s better than arresting people who are completely sober and haven’t smoked in days.

        This is all coming from someone who doesn’t smoke weed or drink. I used to drink regularly and have tried weed. So I understand that both can be very impairing. I wouldn’t recommend anyone under the influence get behind the wheel. I really think most people are better off without either in any amount period, but respect the Individual’s right to use either as long as they are not endangering others.

        The main point here is it’s not justifyable to use a testing method that is unable to determine the time of usage of marijuana, just as it would be wrong to charge someone with DUI for merely having alcohol metabolites or trace amounts

  1. Until such time as the ‘test’ is as accurate as the 0.5 breathalyser there can not be just cause for the crime/penalty being handed out.
    Destroying young lives (any lives) over a plant is ridiculous and its archaic smear campaign from decades past is well overdue for an overhaul.
    Spend the money from legalisation to purchase the accurate testing devices and do it properly.

    • I support testing for impairment, not testing for trace elements remaining in the blood stream days, or even weeks after the drug was taken.
      When will the tests include cocaine, morphine (and all its derivatives)? When will they target events like the Melbourne cup the way they target dance parties.
      The law is neither fair nor just.

  2. How absurd that drug testing proves nothing…NO impaired driving has been established & what tests are available for ‘legal’ over the counter drugs that apparently most citizens are taking from time to time ?? This is harassment to my mind & how interesting that this waste of police funding is focused on the Northern Rivers? I would much prefer to see 7 patrol cars on the Koala “hot spots’ getting motorists to SLOW DOWN. What a load of bollocks we consistently hear from the LNP….all of us on the opposing side have to be consistently ‘evidence based’ but not them. We also need this lot to stop being complicit in the deaths of so many young people, whilst they continue to oppose ‘no pill testing’ at festivals & music venues. When will the conservatives put politics aside and jump into the 21st Century ??? I won’t hold my breath.

    • I. Agree with you on your comments especially with all the homeless people that have no where to live or any where to go to AND THEY don’t seem to give a SHIT about our cracked and falling apart roads and our road’s with the MULTIPLE POT HOLE’S THEY have not by the looks of it looks like they have not ATTEMPTED to FIX

  3. Anecdote: Jake who owns his own plumbing business smokes a joint at a dinner party on Friday night. On Tuesday afternoon, after doing two days work and 4 days later, he is tested by a RDT and is still positive. Fine $1100, 12 months loss of licence. Jake loses his car as it is leased and he no longer can earn an income, his wife has just had their second child two weeks ago so she cannot earn an income. The bank want to know how they can meet their mortgage, their house will probably be lost. Jake goes on the dole for 12 months until he can get his licence back and start earning again. Claimed government benefits are over $500 pw for the family. So that is $25,000 in dole payments that Government (us, you, me) has to fork out. So who wins in this scenario that is being played out many times a day in Australia?

  4. This is a huge breach of what it means to live in a civilized society . Having been stopped at all times of days for a swab even after I had obviously only been surfing enough was enough . So I moved out of the area to a place with far less police presence . I can hear the ” good riddance from here ” but consider all left behind this is a very sad thing an increase of an increasingly Australian blue edge .So much of what we loved about Byron has gone and whats replacing it is not so great . And I don’t smoke or indulge in Cannabis , that was never the point .Its the young people still there I feel for .

  5. cannabis has been well proven not to impair driving and was outlawed under false pretenses to begin with. It needs to have all legislation removed from its use.

    • I agree with Max Igan and many other of these educated individuals. It is a war on the freedom of all Australian citizens and residents. It seems like a money grab and fear tactic from a government with no third party verified scientific proof as a way to keep the fine people of Australia in poverty and below the liveable wage so they are reliant on centerlink and under the thumb of corrupt politicians.

      • My investigations into driving impairment from cannabis give credence to several studies showing that, at worst, it is about the same as the legal blood-alcohol limit. Plus a long life observing people has shown me it’s the drunks running off the road, not the stoners. A worse problem IMO is all the people driving around stuffed to the eyeballs with medically prescribed opioids and benzodiazepines. That’s perfectly legal in this twisted campaign of cultural oppression.

  6. I think ALL drugs should be decriminalised.
    However, should a drug affected person commit an offence against another person, there should be heavy penalties and no leniency because of being “under the influence of drugs”. IMAGINE… how much money would be saved and could be used in drug education, not to mention lives saved by drug trafficking.

  7. It is amazing the resources put into this by the cops. We are not dealing with terrorists, we are not even dealing with people whose driving is impaired, they have been unable to prove impairment for one obvious reason, there is none
    The cops just want a way to bust dope smokers and that is all this is about, prohibition, not public safety. Its the highway patrol coppers, as distinct from the proper cops who protect and serve the community, local coppers are almost invariably good blokes, highway patrol cops however,a bunch of bullies who were probably bullied at school
    As for not voting, NO WAY, HAVE A SAY

  8. If someone used cannabis directly before driving a car, I imagine their driving would be effected, and en more so if they also consumer s beer. If someone used cannabis 24 hours prior to driving a car their driving would not be effected, dont book them, its unfair and stupid. How are they the same situations. A RDT should only be used to ensure safety on the roads, Im all for that. Please dont drive under the influence of drugs.

  9. Test for driving impairment or be fair to all and test for anything at all that might impair driving. Don’t forget the entire valium family and other sedatives and narcotics..
    There’s a very interesting doco/movie on Netflix called Murder Mountain. It follows cannabis growing in Humbolt County, California from the 60s black market to today’s legislated and taxed white market.

  10. Hi man very cool
    How many Lives must we lose by Drugged High Drivers before they either Kill themselves or some innocent person
    I rest My case Bong bong then don’t drive along

    • Ron Barnes please do a bit of online research and try to filter out prohibitionist nonsense and stick to actual science.

    • I think the point is, use the more expensive test that test for current impairment, not if the user used days ago. Imagine if you drank alcohol then even though it was no longer impairing you at all days later, BOOM you lose your license anyway because you drank days ago.

  11. This is draconian policing targeting the culturally alternative people of the Northern Rivers. The conviction of drivers for mere presence has more to do with revenue raising and culture war than public safety, since the police themselves admit that there is no way to tell if a driver is actually impaired. This absurdity has greatly diminished and tarnished the reputation of the police.

  12. This is in reference to B Roberts #4 who concludes: “Spend the money from legalisation to purchase the accurate testing devices and do it properly.” We don’t need to spend more money on testing or heavy handed monitoring. As the author (i didn’t see her/his name listed?) noted an estimated $100,000 is spent weekly to ruin lives and give the pigs more power to harass and intimidate. Its great that ‘nth coast RDT locations’ is trying to do something about this via the ballot box. Targeting the s _ _ _s (Nats) and kicking them out is a first step in stopping the heavy handed blue meanies!

  13. Cannabis testing is stupid..does not impair driving. Some if us live with chronic pain and cannabis is the only thing that helps. Alcohol is the problem ..and some prescription drugs are way way worse. Byron Bay is an ego tripping cop town. Personally would love to drug test them…bet some of them would come back positive…Needs to STOP !!!!!!

  14. The worst part of this is the damage our laws do to peoples’ lives. The sentences completely destroy families and individuals ability to work and survive. The damage is far worse than the effects of smoking cannabis. If somebody smoked a joint 1 or 2 days previous there is no way it can still be classed as DUI (Driving Under The Influence) yet people lose their license to drive up to 9/10 days after smoking. I know so many people in professional/responsible employment that are too scared to go out and socialise because they are afraid of losing their job if they smoke a joint on a Saturday night to relax. Also, why use this term “drugs & alcohol”, alcohol is a recreational drug! Is this so alcoholics can feel they aren’t drug addicts… but they are. Alcohol & tobacco are far worse drugs in terms of the damage they do in our society and they’re both legal. I’m 65 and have been able to drive anywhere, anytime after smoking cannabis. I spend a lot of time driving and have done so all my life since I was 18, inner-city Melbourne and Sydney for 24 years and never had an accident. I prefer not to smoke these days for my health (I’m asthmatic) but this drug has been used for centuries because it has so many health benefits. My wife uses it now to reduce the effects of menopause.

  15. If someone can have a few drinks and drive it should be the same as having a few joints. The tests should read the level of impairment just like it does for booze. Until then, it should not be used to test people.

  16. What we can do is to hold the Police up: not in the classic way, but by engaging them in conversation. If every test takes 5 minutes, the Commanders might start thinking that the economics are not in the test.
    So, I suggest we ask about the test, & make sure we ask about how the test kits are Quality controlled (Do they ensure that the test kits are stored in the correct temperature range? How do they document that?) There are anecdotes that if the kits are not stored correctly, they can mis-read. Summer conditions, hot cars & chemistry do not seem to be a good mix, so ask the questions!

  17. This repression was enacted by the “Christian” Right Wing of the LNP who want revenge on hippies and alternative lifestylers and love the idea of a police state.

  18. If there is no sign of impairment it is an invasion of privacy. “probable cause” is a legal term for a reason!
    Lets drug test our politians randomly!

  19. I don’t smoke anything so the test won’y lose my licence but no one seems to have cottoned onto the DNA aspect. When I was recently swabbed outside Byron Police Station for no other reason than I was one of the next 5 vehicles, they took my licence and told me to stay in the vehicle. I expected them to return with my sample and hand it back to me but that wasn’t what happened.

    I am concerned that they have my DNA and have matched it to the details on my Drivers Licence. This seems like a covert way of collecting the DNA profile of a significant proportion of the population over time.

    I don’t trust the Government or the Police and neither should be trusted on past behaviour.

  20. This is an unjust law. It is causing harm. A waste of resources. There is a need for people to say no and vote accordingly. Do some research on your candidates. Make an informed choice. I have respect for those in France who are willing to say they want a just society. Social, economic and environmental equality for all beings.

  21. The yellow vest movement may very well be what people are driven to. Remember remember the fifth of November the gunpowder, treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder, treason should ever be forgot.

  22. Bring on the impaired driving testing. This Drug Testing is causing the rest of the best of us to suffer in silence. Where do we vote? .What can we do??

  23. It’s really getting to people even those that don’t utilise the plant. We ought to legalise and monitor its use. I think we need some candidates and media that can better influence the public to understand that…”if you use the plant, fair enough! However, you’re not of the same mindset of a non user and in saying that that’s fine and fair and no penalty should be imposed but certain organisations can have limitations and that too is fine but without imposing any penalties”. This can work both ways perhaps we are to seek international advice on the topic. This, plant is readily available and legal for consumption in many countries as we speak. I say-Legalise it, also monitor it without penalty but restrictions obviously. Who, in a political sense is ready in Australia? The greens? They, need public and media/medical support! I’m not a cannibis user but in the event i need a doctor to operate on me I would like to know if he is a user. I too would be ok with a user if he could manage he’s experience and modalities with the plant. Let’s not forget how potent and healing “PLANT MEDICINE”, is! It’s been used for centuries the modern world should “re-boot”, in all fairness. In the system we trust…

    • The voting refers to voting in the elections in a manner that represent your views. Make sure you are registered to vote in teh next state and federal elections.

  24. This is the time off year they make all there money of dumb tourists it just a shame the good locals get caught in the big net. I totally back the police most of the time as there is so many idiots on our roads. But having to put a foreign object in your mouth when you don’t no what it is or where it has come from without doing anything wrong except driving a vehicle is just not right.

  25. Not fair after 12 hours smoking pot. Otherwise we are all criminals who have to give our money and livelyhood to thieves. It’s all about money and pre conceived ideas about cannabis being harmful. So wrong. Like restricting opioids to reduce the volume of pain. We should all now also live with pain or just commit suicide. Eugenics.

  26. The area has changed, police oppression, meth addicts, high crime, gentrification, insane house prices, no rentals, homelessness. Third world roads, no infrastructure, little jobs (Hwy upgrade exception). Multi Million dollar houses on roads full of potholes and no sidewalks. You would think the place was next to the gates of Shangrilah. Good riddance you can keep it.


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