ROAD TRIPPER: John Taylor, better known as Chicken George, stopped driving stoned in light of plans for a new roadside test whi
ROAD TRIPPER: John Taylor, better known as Chicken George, stopped driving stoned in light of plans for a new roadside test whi

Real deal on drug driving

IT WAS the Driver Reviver stops that made Nimbin identity John Taylor's annual stoned road trips to Cairns so much fun.

Every two hours, Mr Taylor (better known as Chicken George) would pull up at a rest stop, help himself to a free cup of coffee and settle under a tree with a joint.

Mr Taylor said he stopped his stoned odysseys about two years ago, but said he had regularly driven under the influence of cannabis for about 35 of his 64 years, including four trips around Australia.

Now a new roadside testing program that aims to pick up drug drivers in the same way RBTs pick up drink drivers looks set to put an end to Mr Taylor's stoned driving career.

Mr Taylor said he had already stopped driving stoned, in light of NSW Government plans to pass legislation by mid-December that will let police start roadside saliva tests to detect cannabis and amphetamines.

News of the legislation comes as the Federal Government moves to hold a forum in Lismore next week as part of efforts to create a national strategy on cannabis use.

The choice of Lismore fits with the region's status as an area of high cannabis use and with a high rate of driving under the influence of cannabis.

A 2003 Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research study found 7.4 per cent of 502 people surveyed in the Lismore Local Government area had driven under the influence of cannabis at least once in the year leading up to the study.

By comparison, a 2001 national survey of 27,000 people by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found only 3.9 per cent of people had driven under the influence of any drug, other than alcohol, in the year before the study.

Driving under the influence of cannabis, or any other illicit drug, is illegal in all of Australia's States and territories.

In NSW driving under the influence of a drug other than alcohol can earn fines of up to $3300 and 12 months in prison. If a stoned driver has been in an accident that killed another person, those penalties can extend up to 14 years in prison.

However, cannabis and other drugs are difficult for police to detect.

Acting Sergeant Steve Hilder of the Richmond Local Area Command traffic unit said under present rules police could only force a driver to give blood and urine samples for drug testing if they saw them driving dangerously.

"Usually up here it's a cocktail," Sgt Hilder said. "People will have four or five or six or even more drugs in their system.

"You hear of truck drivers getting out of their trucks with torches to check their tyres in the middle of the day."

Testing people and bringing them to court often took months.

"That's the frustrating part about it," Sgt Hilder said. "Where alcohol's involved, it's instant. Within 20 minutes you have your court attendance notice and you're on your way."

Hence the appeal of the saliva tests, which were introduced in Victoria last year and give a result within minutes, and could act as a deterrent to stoned driving in the same way RBTs act as a deterrent to drink driving.

Authorities hope saliva tests will result in a fall in road deaths similar to the one that followed the introduction of random breath testing in the 1980s.

That theory is backed by research from Professor Olaf Drummer of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, who estimated that up to 16 per cent of fatal car crashes were caused by drugs other than alcohol and that the figure was rising.

Prof Drummer's study looked at 3398 fatal crashes between 1990 and 1999 and found cannabis in the systems of 13.5 per cent of the drivers.

Critically, Prof Drummer found stoned driving increased during the 10 years of his study, starting about 8 per cent in the early years and possibly doubling by the end of the study.

However, the argument doesn't end there.

University of Adelaide researcher Marie Longo, who looked at drivers in 2500 nonfatal crashes in 2000, found motorists under the influence of cannabis, but no other drugs, were no more likely to be involved in an accident than a drug-free driver.

Despite the inconsistency, the weighting of belief among authorities is that cannabis use does reduce driving abilities ? largely because of overseas tests that show cannabis use slows reaction time and hand/eye co-ordination.

University of Toronto adjunct professor Alison Smiley found in a US study that stoned drivers often compensated for their impairment by driving more slowly and cautiously. However, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Australia notes 'this strategy does not help if something unexpected happens on the road'.

Despite believing he was safe driving stoned, Mr Taylor said it was not for everybody.

"Some people are capable of doing things others aren't," he said. "Most people couldn't climb Mount Everest, but Sir Edmund Hilary could."

Mr Taylor, along with Michael Balderstone of Nimbin's Hemp Embassy, is pushing for cannabis laws to be relaxed 'but whether we want it so people can drive their motor vehicles (while stoned) is another thing'.

"I personally wouldn't endorse that people drive under the influence of cannabis." What do you think?

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