Whakatāne District Council to begin random drug testing

10:30 am on 30 October 2020

The merits of random drug testing versus impairment testing was the subject of debate in the Whakatāne District Council yesterday.

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Drug testing. File image Photo: Supplied / Drug Detection Agency

The council has recently signed an agreement with The Drug Detection Agency to provide all drug and alcohol screening for staff in "safety sensitive areas".

However, councillor and cannabis advocate Nandor Tanczos said the council should really be concentrating on impairment testing of staff rather than screening for use.

He said he had evidence that random drug testing did not improve health and safety in the workplace.

"My concern is that random drug testing doesn't improve safety, it instead moves people onto less detectable drugs," Tanczos said.

"Impairment testing would be better."

Councillor and Matata Volunteer Fire Brigade chief Gavin Dennis agreed the emphasis should be on impairment.

"In my experience, picking people up off the side of the road, you can tell straight away who is impaired and it is generally those people who are involved in the worst crashes," Dennis said.

"Impairment affects judgement and is a big risk. We should test for impairment rather than drugs."

Mayor Judy Turner said she too supported testing of impairment, but not just for health and safety reasons.

Many years ago she worked alongside someone who was consistently drunk and although they were not a safety risk, they were not very good at their job, she said.

Councillor John Pullar asked if elected members would also be tested but was told that because they did not work in a "safety sensitive area" they would not.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation website notes that workplace drug testing does not always improve workplace safety, can be ineffective at managing impairment, and is highly invasive.

It says this is because random drug testing only detects previous use of drugs, not whether someone is currently impaired or affected by drug use.

Many drugs only have a short effect so if someone takes them at the beginning of the weekend it is unlikely to be affecting them when they return to work.

Urine is the most common sample type and is the least expensive although it is highly invasive as usually employees are required to pee into a cup under the supervision of a drug agency staff member.

Saliva is the least invasive and is the least reliable method of testing.

A standard drug test tests for cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, opiates, and PCP.

Cannabis can be detected in urine for up to four weeks after use, methamphetamine for three to five days, heroin and morphine for four to five days, and cocaine for two to four days after use depending on the person's age, weight, and how much and how often they use.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation notes impairment should be the focus to improve workplace safety and this can be from tiredness, stress, dealing with grief or a break-up, medications, or drug and alcohol use.

The council's chief executive, Stephanie O'Sullivan, said random and pre-employment drug testing was only a small part of what the council did to improve health and safety in the workplace.

The council would undertake proactive education and the drug testing could catch something before it happened, she said.

It might also help people recognise they had a problem.

She noted the council provided a suite of wellbeing initiatives to staff like free support and counselling services.

Community and engagement general manager Emlyn Hatch said the council, like thousands of other organisations in New Zealand, was waiting on the result of the cannabis referendum and what that might mean for workplace health and safety.

The council put a wraparound service in place for staff who are struggling and dealt with each person on a case by case basis, he said.

The Drug Detection Agency is now reviewing council's policy to ensure it is fit for purpose. This policy will then be provided to staff for consultation and training will be conducted.

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