Report: A third of marijuana smokers drive under the influence

More than a third of cannabis smokers have admitted driving while high, sparking calls for random roadside saliva testing.

A report surveying cannabis consumption, published by the Ministry of Health,  shows about one in 10 Kiwis say they have smoked marijuana in the past year. Of these, 37 per cent admitted driving stoned .

Men were most likely to drive high, with half of those between 35 and 44 reporting getting behind the wheel after a smoke.

The results come as the Government considers tougher enforcement of drug-driving laws, including introducing saliva testing, which is used in some Australian states.

Police have been testing for drug-driving since law changes in 2009, but critics say drivers need to be “off their face” before they are picked up.

Only a few hundred drug-driving “impairment” tests are carried out each year, compared with about three million alcohol breath tests. The drug tests consist of physical checks such as pupil dilution and balance.

Automobile Association spokesman Dylan Thomsen said drugs, particularly cannabis, were a “silent killer” on the roads but “hardly anything” was being done to tackle the problem.

“There are a lot more crashes involving cannabis that we realise.”

There was widespread underestimation of the dangers of driving stoned, he said. Roughly one in 100 people tested for drink-driving were impaired, but the figure would be far higher for cannabis, if it was tested for more regularly and thoroughly.

“The tests are hardy used at all. It is only really used if someone is clearly off their face and the alcohol test has been negative.”

Thomsen believed New Zealand should introduce saliva-based roadside drug testing.

Drug Foundation chief executive Ross Bell said many New Zealanders has bought into a “mythology” that driving high was safe, because they often drove more slowly. “Back in the 60s or 70s, people used to say they drove better drunk. It’s that same argument.”

But studies had shown stoned drivers were slower to react to hazards, and nearly twice as likely to be involved in crashes than an unimpaired driver.

An Environmental Science and Research report in 2011 found one in four of all drivers killed in road crashes had cannabis in their system, although it was not necessarily the cause of the crash.

Bell said there needed to be a big culture shift away from drug-driving. But he did not support saliva tests, which were expensive, slow and sometimes inaccurate. Instead he supported more police training for the current “impairment test”.

Inspector Pete Baird, road policing operation services manager, said the law allowed police to test drivers for drugs only when there was “good cause” for suspicion, as opposed to alcohol testing, which could carried out on any driver. Testing for drugs was also slower, while an alcohol breath test was instant.

Associate Transport Minister Craig Foss said the Ministry of Transport was reviewing how drug-driving laws were enforced, which would include looking at  the extent of the problem and whether saliva tests could work.

“The Government takes drug-driving extremely seriously.  The review team is due to report back to ministers in July.”

The New Zealand Transport Agency has recently run television advertising campaigns targeting stoned drivers in an effort to change attitudes, but agency spokesman Andy Knackstedt said it was a long-haul aim and, as a group,drug-drivers were difficult to reach.

“Driving under the influence of drugs is common and widespread, but it is a complex issue. Unlike drink-driving, safe limits cannot be easily established and it is difficult to enforce.”


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High Life

  • 42 per of adults have smoked cannabis, 11 per cent in the past year and about 4 per cent at least once a week.
  • 36 per cent of those people have driven while high in the past year
  • 42 per cent said they smoked for “medicinal purposes”
  • 2 per cent had experienced legal hassles linked to their habit
  • 8 per cent said cannabis had negatively affected their mental health
  • 6 per cent said cannabis had negatively affected their work, study or employment opportunities.

Source: The New Zealand Health Survey, Cannabis Use 2012-13

Too stoned to drive?

It is illegal to drive impaired by drugs, including many legal prescription drugs. When police have “good cause to suspect” a driver is on drugs, they can carry out a impairment test. This includes:

  • Checking your eyes for signs of drug use, such as unusual reaction to light, pupil size and irregular movements.
  • Getting you to walk and turn around.
  • Getting you to balance on one leg.

If you fail the impairment test, police will conduct a blood test, which will reveal any drugs in your system and could lead to charges.