Much-loved Australian music festival Strawberry Fields, which took place at Koonamoo in Victoria’s north over the weekend, made headlines earlier this week after police detected dozens of drug drivers heading to the festival.
A Victoria Police media release claimed a total of 56 drivers were detected driving to the festival under the influence and a further 60 were caught in possession of drugs as part of a four-day joint operation.
According to The Courier Cobram, Operation Strawberry Fields was run jointly by Victorian and NSW police, involving members of the local police, as well as the dog squad, and highway patrol officers.
“I can’t believe people have no regard for their own safety and other road users,” said Inspector Dave Ryan, telling The Herald Sun that he was exceptionally disappointed at the ignorance of some festivalgoers.
A subsequent report by NSW Police Deniliquin indicated that of the 147 random roadside drug tests conducted on festival Saturday, 14 came back positive, while 20 of the 122 tests conducted on Sunday yielded a positive result.
Deniliquin police Acting Inspector Trent Swinton told The Courier Cobram that random roadside drug tests indeed returned 34 positive results. “Final figures indicate that 20 percent of individuals tested returned a positive sample,” he said.
“Police are highly alarmed by the results from the weekend which indicate 64 per cent of the vehicles en-route to the Strawberry Fields event were conveying prohibited drugs,” Act Insp Swinton added.
“These results are further exacerbated by individuals choosing to drive a motor vehicle impaired by a prohibited drug. Drivers are not only placing themselves and their passengers at risk they are placing the broader community and road users at significant risk.”
But just what kind of risk did the drivers pose? How do we define a ‘drug driver’? As we all know, in Australia a drunk driver is anyone who registers with a blood alcohol concentration higher than the 0.05 legal limit.“The testing only discloses prior drug usage, which may have no adverse impairment of driving ability.”
So what’s the limit for other intoxicants, like drugs? Well, the answer isn’t exactly straightforward. You may or may not be surprised to learn that, unlike alcohol, drugs fall under a zero tolerance blanket policy.
According to a Queensland Police fact sheet, roadside saliva tests detect traces of the active ingredients in marijuana, methylamphetamine, and MDMA. What level of drugs can be detected without penalty?
“There will be zero tolerance. Any trace of the nominated drugs in your system and you can be penalised.” Sounds reasonable, right? After all, the last thing anybody wants is to have a driver on the road whose judgment is impaired by drugs.
Except that driver might not necessarily be impaired. “The testing only discloses prior drug usage, which may have no adverse impairment of driving ability,” Stephen Blanks of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties told The Huffington Post earlier this year.
The NSWCCL came out against the rollout of random roadside drug tests in the state several months back, saying the strict liability offence was unfair to drivers as it depicts anyone with trace amounts of drugs in their system as ‘impaired’.
“Cannabis can hang around in your system for days, maybe even a few weeks, but not have any impact on your ability to drive,” said Blanks. “It is illegal to possess those drugs, but it’s never been illegal to take them. It’s a small point, but it’s worth taking in mind.”
Blanks said the absence of any threshold for drug use, such as the 0.05 BAC for alcohol, was one of the issues with roadside drug tests. “With alcohol, there is a threshold below which it is recognised that usage doesn’t impair ability to drive,” he said.
“With drug tests, there is absolute zero tolerance. The problem of drug driving are issues probably not best dealt with through random testing. Perhaps it should be other ways, like driver education or better laws around drug usage or possession.”
“Society would get a better outcome if we took a health and harm minimisation approach, rather than a law enforcement approach.” So did police detect dozens of drivers with drug elements in their systems heading to Strawberry Fields? It appears so.
But does that mean they were impaired ‘drug drivers’? Not necessarily. However, what’s perhaps most surprising is the fact that the police fully acknowledge that a positive reading on a roadside drug test does not indicate impairment.
“For road safety, if you’re involved in the drug scene, don’t drive a motor vehicle. This is 100 percent road safety focused. We don’t want anyone impaired by drugs behind the wheel,” Inspector Steve Blair, commander of the random drug testing unit, told HuffPo.
“It is purely a presence offence. In the roadside test, we’re not saying you’re impaired or off your face. The offence is simply a strict liability. If you have it in your system, that’s it.”