Cracker by Damian Christie

New Year, New Post.

I was a bit disappointed to realise, on December 30th, that 2014 would pass without me finishing a single book.   I picked up a copy of Steve Braunias’ election collection, Mad Men, but even its slender spine defied my belated efforts. 

Likewise, I’d barely written a word all year.  A few blog entries (I’ve never been prolific, for sure, but that’s a new low even for me), no magazine articles or columns or anything.  For some reason, unable to read or write.  Practically, if not literally, illiterate. 

December 31st being a traditional time for setting unrealistic expectations for the year ahead, I resolved to do more of both these things.  To write regularly, like I’m doing now, and to try and knock off a book each month or thereabouts. Though The Luminaries (still unread, on my bookshelf) might have to count as two or three of those. 

What went wrong in 2014, I ask on your behalf, like so many annoying politicians setting up their own questions (“Could we be doing better? Of course. Are we working to improve the economy? Yes. What sorts of things are we doing?”).  Yes what went wrong?  Well nothing really.  Our second child turned up in May, a little fella named Eddie who is an absolute joy, and what little time was left went to work, the rest of the family, and occasionally, sleep.  Rather than reading, I’d drift off in front of a comedy show, laptop thudding to the ground more often than not.  (Still works, other than the delete key. I've just learnt to never make mistakes…) 

Last year I subscribed to the New Yorker too. I’d get guilty looking at the pile of unread issues, but tried to at least dedicate my weekly flights to Wellington for Back Benches to reading them – in the past I would’ve worked my way through a book, but  I fucking love the New Yorker, and even if I only read 1 in 4 mags, the relatively cheap annual sub (about $120 I think?) is money well spent, and I couldn’t recommend it more. 

I’d meant to write a number of times during the election campaign.  But it was all so damned depressing – not the outcome per se, but the fact that most “normal” people I spoke to (ie those who don’t have Twitter accounts and get their news from the TV or an actual newspaper) weren’t particularly exercised by the Dirty Politics affair simply because they always thought politics and politicians were like that anyway.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, there’s a reason why MPs are down there with journalists among the least trusted professions, but working alongside so many back bench MPs, I think I’ve generally had a more optimistic view of the people I’ve gotten to know. I say “generally” – I mean there have been some completely c**ts too. 

The other thing I’d meant to tell y’all is that my student media site,, is launching a TV show, through TVNZ On Demand.   It will feature the best content submitted to, as well as content commissioned from young people around NZ, a magazine show mix of news, reviews, interviews, arts, music, entertainment, social issues and so forth.  If you have young (13+) people in your house, let them know, and if they’re content creators, let me know!  We kick off in March (thanks NZ On Air, as well as TVNZ for backing me).   

If we do get off the ground on schedule, we’ll probably beat the new Paul Henry Breakfast TV and radio combo show being put together by Mediaworks – from what I understand it won’t see the light now until April or even later.   I’ve got some thoughts on this show, but rather than use all my ammo in this first post, I might try and save it for a bit more detailed consideration in the coming weeks. 

Don’t be surprised if comments aren’t enabled for my posts.  While I think there are some really good discussions on PAS, there’s also been some shitty ones, ones that have put me off contributing here, and I know have seen others leave in the past.  Just because we don’t call each other pinko commie twats like they do on other blogs, doesn’t mean it’s always a “safe space”, or even just a nice place to be.   If you really wanna talk about something, I’m on Twitter @damianchristie 

…Speaking of ‘safe space’, what’s crawled up Twitter’s arse and died in the past weeks?  Arguments over God-knows-what (even by Twitter’s usual standards), people locking up, leaving… What I find weird is that people – and I’ve done it here myself – attribute it to Twitter somehow.  Like it’s universal, when actually all of our accounts are a unique combination of people we’ve chosen to follow. And you only have to look at the trending hashtags to realise that most people aren’t arguing about safe spaces and mansplaining and privilege and marginalisation and so forth, they’re discussion how much they love One Direction and/or the cricket.  So how did I end up in this humourless, needlessly argumentative chamber? 

Sometimes I think Twitter would be better if you could just turn off the comments too. 


The Colorado Experiment

I went to Denver, Colorado last week.  It’s part of a project I can’t really talk about at the moment, but it’s fair to assume my visit – coinciding with the 420 Rally on 4/20 – had something to do with cannabis.

Coming home, into the midst of a nationwide debate over the status of legal highs, simply reinforced what I’d felt for a long time: that by refusing to even consider the legalisation of cannabis, we’ve ended up with something far worse.

I’m not much of a pot smoker, and nor were the crew I travelled with. Many of my friends are of course, and they thought it particularly unfair that I of all people would get to go to Colorado for what must be the biggest event on the worldwide cannabis calendar.

Possession of cannabis became legal in Colorado on 1 January 2014. The 420 Rally has long been a popular event in the state, but this, the first since legalisation, was always going to be huge.  And it was – tourists from both within and outside the US turned up in droves, hotel occupancy was up by 70%, and for the duration of our stay, most floors of our hotel had a pungent aroma.

There were dozens if not hundreds of events put on especially for the weekend. The 420 Rally in Denver’s Civic Park attracted tens of thousands on Saturday and Sunday, the search-for-the-best-buds Cannabis Cup was also a two-day affair, and live acts and DJs across the city were programmed to delight the smokers. Snoop Dogg played to a sold out crowd at the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre on the big night.

At the same time, oddly, if you were walking through Denver’s bar district late at night, around Larimer Square, you’d have absolutely no idea what was happening elsewhere.

Legalisation in Colorado does not mean ‘free for all’. There’s no smoking weed in public, no smoking in or outside of bars, and no smoking in your car. You’ve got to be 21 to buy it, there are limits to how much you can buy or possess (an ounce in most cases) and how many plants you can have (6). 

And it’s taxed. According to a lawyer I spoke to, who was largely responsible for pushing the proposition through, it was the Soccer Moms who helped it pass, with one condition: The first $40 million of revenue goes to school construction in the state. It’s estimated the tax on weed could raise $125 million in its first year. Of course, the ‘free-weed’ brigade still believe there should be no restrictions whatsoever on the blessed herb.

 At the same time, the state also runs a medicinal marijuana regime. You require some form of ailment treatable by marijuana – the poster I saw at the dispensary recommended a particular indica strain for “fungal infections”, so I’m guessing Athlete’s Foot would do the trick. Medical marijuana is not subject to the same tax as recreational marijuana – the price difference is enough to still make it worthwhile to find an affliction. I’m not saying there aren’t those legitimately benefitting, but I spoke to enough people with “back spasms [wink wink]” to have my doubts. The dispensary I visited said it was about 50/50 medicinal to recreational users, so either the system is being abused, or Denver is a very sick city.  Also, I don’t think it’s good for a person to pretend to be sick to get their fix – while the recreational buyers happily discussed their preferences, the medicinal lot demonstrated all the joy of a doctor’s waiting room.

 The grow operation we went to was a professionally run business. Quarantine procedures to prevent contamination of crops, clinical cleanliness, happy workers all fulfilling their part of the chain, from tending plants, trimming buds, drying, curing and packaging. At the attached dispensary, the larger-than-life shop assistant helped people choose from the plethora of strains and blends on offer.


I’ve never been much of a smoker because I don’t like some of the effects. I don’t particularly enjoy the pungent smoke (and the coughing fit it inspires), I feel slow, dumb, occasionally paranoid, my gums and mouth feel weird, I don’t return to normal until after having a good night’s sleep, and even the next morning I can feel a haze of stupidity hanging over me. That’s just me, and of course I realise that millions of people feel differently, and good on them. Just as I appreciate the aesthetics of a runny poached egg on toast, while retching at the taste, so I can understand why it is people like to smoke pot.


When in Rome, of course, and I was curious to know if the benefits of legalisation included a strain of cannabis I might enjoy. I wanted something that would make me giggle, reminiscent of my early experiences with the drug, probably when it was a lot less strong and/or 50% oregano thanks to the local skinheads we’d buy from.  I bought three different strains at the dispenser’s recommendation. Later that evening, tears were streaming down my face as I laughed uncontrollably. I still don’t think I’d make a habit of it, but it was fun for an evening.


I often think those most vocal about legalisation make the worst advertisement for cannabis, and the first day of the 420 Rally had aspects of that. In a state where it’s legal, would you choose to simply exercise your rights with friends at home, or don marijuana-motif tights, hoodie and cap, and smoke in public? There were definitely kids well under 21 there, getting blazed, their motivation draining before your eyes, and mothers smoking up while holding their babies. It was a bit gross. One boy told me he used marijuana to help with his schizophrenia. Another bombarded me with tales he was close with Obama, played with Van Halen and wrote the script for Anchor Man 4.

The next day, 4/20 was illustrative of the broader church of pot smokers, normal people rather than NORML people. 30,000 people packed the park to smoke their strains to the strains of Wyclef Jean and B.o.B among others, and the mood was festive. Smoking in public is illegal, but police were turning a blind eye, their presence a response to the 2013 rally, where rival gang violence saw two people shot. As far as I saw, there was no trouble this year. And the mass smoke-up at 4.20pm was something remarkable to observe.

“No trouble” seems to largely sum up Colorado’s cannabis experiment – a process being watched from within the US and around the world. I spoke to a State Trooper, and to the Department of Transportation. No rise in crime, no rise in cannabis-related traffic accidents (anecdotally at least – it’s still a little too early to tell from the stats). One person fell to his death apparently after consuming a pot cookie. Personally, I’m also not keen on the prospect of children mistaking cannabis-laced ‘gummie bears’ for their more benign counterparts, and I’m told there will be more regulation around the edible products. But for the most part, it’s been smooth sailing.

Back home, and we’re freaking out about people going cold turkey from whatever the hell it is in the synthetic cannabis they’ve been smoking. We’re still debating testing on animals and million-dollar safety regimes as politicians run around trying to score points for being tough on this bizarre Frankenstein’s Monster of an issue. The barons of synthesis are rich while people are in prison for growing a few plants.

I’m no pot smoker (although I’d prefer to avoid any workplace testing for the next 28 days or so), but to me the answer seems pretty obvious.


I’d been thinking about writing this post last week, before the news of Charlotte Dawson’s death.  In some ways the post is now even more relevant, but at the same time it’s become far more complex, trying to separate the one small point I was going to make away from the myriad issues of celebrity, depression, cyber-bullying and more.

My initial post was triggered by a poll I saw on  It seemed innocuous enough at first, it seemed to blend with the other ‘Entertainment’ stories on the page. But as I read, re-read, and re-considered it, the more I kept coming back to one conclusion: That’s Fucked.

If you need me to join the dots for you on this one, then sure: You’ve got three people who have jobs at a company.  They’ve only just started those jobs for the year, two of them have only been in the position less than a month. The show’s had some issues – this re-jig is seen as a bit of a fresh start, and everyone’s putting their best foot forward. Despite what might be seen as a cack-handed publicity effort, willfully misinterpreted by a gossip columnist as a sign of imminent blood-letting, there is no suggestion any of the three jobs is for the chop, other than the sense any primetime employment is tenuous at best. But again, two of the hosts had only just been employed, and if they’d wanted to get rid of the third  they’d had the perfect opportunity at the end of last year. 

Let’s be clear. There’s no reason to suspect one of the three has to go. So why have a poll, asking the public which of these human beings they’d “like” to be fired? Oh, you know, shits ‘n’ giggles. Some clicks. The general enjoyment of reducing someone’s livelihood to a reality-show-style public elimination round.

If it were anyone other than presenters whose jobs were being voted on, I think there’d be outrage.  If there was another round of job cuts at APN, and TVNZ ran a poll of which Herald journalists should get fired, that’d be pretty awful. If Vodafone did the same thing about Telecom employees, disgusting.

I’d tweeted my thoughts on this poll last week, and pointed it out again in response to a conversation being had this morning on Breakfast in which TVNZ staff read out some of the worst tweets they’ve received. Hideous stuff.

 Am I trying to silence media criticism as someone suggested? No. But I don’t consider the repugnant example above fits that category. I mean, you don’t have to be Arthur Nielsen to realise its more skewed than one of Colin Craig’s polls. Let’s say, just say, that you like all three presenters, or God forbid, you actually like the show. How do you reflect that in the available answers? You can’t, and so the show is either being let down by one of the three; all three; or doomed regardless.

You’re smart people, you get what I’m saying.

The feedback I received from my last post was interesting. A lot of those inside the media read it as saying people outside should be nicer. Those outside, the opposite. What I had intended was a little from column A, a little from column B, a bit of holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Some got that.

Twitter, and the twits on it, certainly caused Charlotte Dawson anguish at times.  I’d seen it happening (online at least), and mentioned it in my own account of life on Twitter:

“[On] Twitter, the Simon Cowell does hear you. They can (and largely will and should) ignore you, or they can respond. Unless it’s truly for sport, I think the latter is unwise. When I’m faced with that situation, I think “What Would Charlotte Do?” and then do the opposite. Engaging, retweeting, absorbing all that bile, well clearly it doesn’t do you any good. Sorry Charlotte, you need to put the Twitter down and step away.”

But Charlotte also faced attacks from the media. It’s interesting that most of the coverage I’ve seen has focused on cyber-bullying, conveniently saving the media from gazing inward. Any journalist now recounting stories of abusive tweets should take a moment to consider whether they’ve ever published a story that’s caused unnecessary hurt – and by “necessary” I don’t mean because it’s a “good yarn” or guaranteed ratings-winner.

Charlotte’s relationship with the media was complex. The relationship was symbiotic rather than parasitic. The Ridges were on Breakfast this morning, giving their two cents’. When the personal becomes the professional, the line between professional criticism and personal abuse blurs, or disappears. How do you say “I hate The Ridges” without saying “I hate the Ridges”? *

The same doesn’t have to apply to news and current affairs programmes. If I say “I don’t like 3 News”** do you automatically assume it’s the presenters I hate, or the reporters, the editors, the camera operators? No. It’s possible to dislike the show without disliking anyone on it.  Unless you make it personal. Unless you run a poll. Then it’s personal. Then people get hurt.

*I don’t hate The Ridges. The Ridges I could take or leave.

**I don’t dislike 3 News. It was an example. 


How Media Made me a Bad Person.

Working in media does bad things to people. 

 It’s probably not surprising, it can be a brutal industry.  Not only are you sometimes asked to do things no decent human should ever have to do – I’ve alluded to some of these before, and one day will say more, perhaps in the guise of fiction – but all the while, your entire output is being watched and judged. 

Every business has its competitors, but only in media – and especially in television – is every day’s efforts rated, and held up against the competition for comparison. Even sportspeople usually only play once a week, and political polls are monthly – ratings are published daily, and can be magnified down to minute-by-minute. They’re then analysed by other media, eager for stories of failure.

Think about that for a second.  If your shoe shop stops selling as many shoes as it once did, there are no articles in the national newspaper talking about your staggering decline, or how your arse is being kicked by the shoe shop down the road, predicting your inevitable demise.  But that’s what happens, if not every single day, then certainly a few times each week when you work on a primetime news or current affairs programme.

If ratings were used as designed, to put a price on advertising, it wouldn’t matter. But instead the media – both externally and within the programmes themselves – use them to judge the programmes’ worth, and by implication, the worth of those working on it.  The pressure to rate, and more particularly to out-rate the other channels creates fierce competition, and a general desire to see your opponent fail, so that you might win.

You’re expected to be loyal to your side. Yeah, you have friends who work across the fence, but when you get together you’ll argue about who’s got the best line up, the better interviews, the biggest scoop. When you’re out in the field together, you’ll hold on to key information in the hope their story ends up missing the angle. When the shows go to air you’ll watch them side by side, blow for blow, scoffing at story selection, talent choice, the lack of good pictures.

Your loyalty is as fierce as it is fleeting and fickle. Once you ‘defect’ to the other side – and that’s how it’s considered – it’s important to give your former employer a swift public kick in the shins before the door closes – there are at least a couple of recent high profile examples which spring to mind. And once over the fence, you speak of the bad old days, while your former colleagues now view you with suspicion.

It can turn you nasty, basically.

I’ve been guilty of this. Four years ago I wrote a post or two about murmurings around Campbell Live, and whether it was for the chopping block. I pointed to the relatively low ratings and said it didn’t seem sustainable for a prime time show. Campbell Live is clearly still here, even if my point was perversely proven when Close Up – which generally rated higher – was scrapped due to low ratings itself.

The posts I wrote weren’t inaccurate necessarily, but I regret that I felt the need to write them at all; to spread the gossip that was doing the rounds, to revel in what seemed to be the imminent demise of a competitor, under the thin veil of ‘media analysis’.

It wasn’t even because I didn’t like Campbell Live, or Mr Campbell himself. In fact one of my only experiences with John Campbell had come through this very blog – he’d read something I wrote, and taken the time to email me to say how much he enjoyed a particular turn of phrase. It was a lovely thing to do, and I was chuffed.

 It’s telling if not surprising then, that the sole example of magnanimity I can ever recall seeing on TV was Mr Campbell’s quite touching on-air farewell to Mark Sainsbury and the crew of Close Up on their last day. He turned up to the farewell drinks too. That was all class.

 The nastiness happens at an individual level too, where the competition is between colleagues for the best jobs, the chance to present, be an overseas correspondent, or even to get off the intern desk just once and do a story. It turns friends into rivals, even enemies, remarkably easily. Just this week I heard another case of a ‘friend’ betraying another’s confidence, effectively stomping on the fingers of their colleague as they climbed up the ladder.

I remember years ago a media friend of mine and I busted each other gossiping about the other. We genuinely liked each other – still do – so why? It was part envy, part mischief, and sometimes just going along with whatever the group might be saying.  We had it out one day over lunch, then made a pact. It’s one I’ve stuck to, and extended to others, never to criticise each other, and if someone else was to say “don’t you think so-and-so is awful?” to explicitly disagree and stick up for your friend – an act so uncommon and unexpected in media that it often elicits an immediate backdown.

None of this is particularly revelatory I’m sure, but I wanted to say it anyway. To point out that it’s bullshit, and it’s reinforced by the public perception – including in the comments on sites such as this – that those working in the media are deliberately stupid, lazy, corrupt or inept, or all of the above. That it’s okay to Tweet how such-and-such a reporter is rubbish; their day’s work a pile of crap.  That writing reviews which thinly veil your hatred and bitterness towards a medium you once inhabited yourself, is a productive way to earn a living.

I don’t want to write that, and I don’t want to read it.  Not because I don’t enjoy reading it, but precisely because I do enjoy it, and I don’t like that about myself. Like many, I struggle against those demons that want me to be nasty, bitchy, gossipy, to revel in the misfortunes of others, even if ‘misfortune’ in this case is that they didn’t get the weekend weather presenter job, or whatever it might be.

That’s not to say there isn’t merit it speaking out against the indefensible – I think public reaction to racist cartoons, Bob Jones and Michael Laws should be encouraged, and makes us better, not worse, as it strikes against exactly the sort of toxicity I’m speaking about.

I like to think becoming a dad has made me a better person, or at the very least made me want to be. It’s hard not to be upbeat, albeit constantly tired, when there’s this amazing giggling mass of energy running around you the whole time, dragging you outside to jump on the trampoline with him, or out back to water the garden. And I think that contrast with the somewhat toxic media environment has become even more stark.  At the same time, running (the site I set up last year for creative youth) has put me in touch with so many keen, positive young people, and likewise with my teaching at AUT (I started last semester, teaching journalism there part time), I hope things could possibly change. That the old, almost FPP-style of two main newspaper companies, two big TV news organisations, two radio networks might become less cutthroat as it evolves into numerous online platforms, each with a part to play.

None of which is to say I want to lose my bite entirely. There’s a lot of merit in satire, wit, and a well-timed put down, especially when leveled against authority. But I’d like to think that if you meet me this year, you might see a slightly different person. A tired one probably – there’s a new arrival due in May – but one that’s slightly nicer to be around. One who finds merit in the old "if you can't say anything nice..." adage. One day at a time.

A final note. There are good people in media – I wouldn’t want to suggest that everyone is toxic. There are some I could single out; anyone who’s met Wallace Chapman knows there’s no malice anywhere in that man, and every interaction I’ve ever had with the mighty Keith Quinn, who is always willing to help out. John Campbell, as I’ve mentioned (I’m sorry) – even that scamp Duncan Garner this week agreed to have coffee with one of my students, an aspiring political journo, just because it’s a decent thing to do. (by the way there’s a lovely piece by Steve Braunias on Duncan in this month’s Metro that had me welling up on the plane). There are many others, but I guess my point is, there could be many more – fundamentally decent, intelligent people who have allowed themselves to be consumed with bitterness, envy and naked ambition. I hope some of you are reading this and might have a think before you speak the next time someone disses a colleague, or the show on the other channel. 

Me, if I may borrow a phrase: I think you’re all bloody marvelous.

(Comments are open on this post. Go easy.)


Stoned in Charge

Like Russell, I will be attending the Drug Foundation's 2013 International Drug Policy Symposium - "Through the Maze: Cannabis and Health", not least of all because I'm MCing the three-day event.  It begins on Wednesday, if this is the first you're hearing about it and really need to be there, I suggest you click the link above and get yourself sorted.

In August I travelled to Queensland for a conference all about drugs and traffic safety, partly as research for a documentary, but also so I could write this groovy little piece for the Drug Foundation's magazine "Substance Matters".  Have a read.


Driving high

Cannabis and cars don’t mix. We know pot causes impairment, but just how much, and is it even that dangerous? Damian Christie looks at one of the emerging issues around cannabis harm.

“I drive better when I’ve been drinking” is not something you hear these days. Whether it’s down to personal experience, years of watching the horrific results of drunk driving on the news or the millions spent on a variety of advertising campaigns, the message – for most of us – has sunk in. Drink, Drive, Bloody Idiot, Ghost Chips etc.

Despite the obvious logic – things that make our brain go funny don’t improve our driving – there seems to be something stopping people who regularly use cannabis from reaching the same conclusion. It’d be easy to attribute the disconnect straight back to their drug of choice, but the reality is more complex, as is how best to detect and deal with those who continue to drive under the influence. The answer to those questions is a source of debate not just in New Zealand but around the world, where even the experts disagree on some fundamentals.

Not surprisingly, in New Zealand, more people drive under the influence of cannabis than any other illegal drug. What is surprising, though, is that more people report driving while impaired by cannabis than over the limit for alcohol. The data isn’t perfect but would suggest at least one in five New Zealand drivers has driven under the influence of cannabis – within three hours of smoking – in the past year. Two-thirds of cannabis users report drug driving in the past year, and most rate it as far less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.

Among younger people, the problem is even greater – a Canadian study found 40 percent of people aged 15–24 had driven stoned – double the rate who said they’d driven under the influence of alcohol. More worryingly, they’d done it not just once, but on average 10 times in the past year – far higher than the same figure for alcohol.

The rhetoric around driving stoned will be familiar to many: “It makes me a safer driver.” “I drive slower when I’m stoned.” “I’m more careful.” Is it true? In a word: no. But exactly how dangerous is it? And if we were to set some sort of limit in the same way as we do with drink driving, how stoned is too stoned to drive?

There is no doubt cannabis impairs driving ability, says Dr Barry K Logan, “within limits”. Based at Philadelphia’s NMS Labs, Dr Logan is one of the world’s foremost experts in drug-impaired driving, although he says most cannabis users’ chosen level of impairment is not particularly high.

“A user-preferred dose produces a level of impairment equivalent to a moderate level of alcohol consumption, 0.04 percent to 0.05 percent [blood alcohol concentration or BAC] for about 2–4 hours. And then after that, the evidence is people pretty much return to the baseline.”

It’s worth noting New Zealand’s blood alcohol concentration for drink driving is – rather controversially – set even higher, at 0.08 percent. The upshot is most moderate cannabis users don’t get higher than the level we already deem acceptable for alcohol.

“People don’t enjoy it,” says Dr Logan, “there’s a certain level of cannabis use in periodic users where it’s not really fun any more, it’s almost self-regulating.”

Which is not to say it’s ‘safe’ – blood taken from Canadian drivers involved in fatal accidents shows drivers who test positive for cannabis are five times more likely to die than sober drivers. This is slightly lower than those found with alcohol in their system. But – and it’s a big but – when cannabis is combined with alcohol, the risk of a fatal accident jumps to 40 times more likely than a sober driver. And that risk is present even just with moderate levels of cannabis and blood alcohol under the drink-driving limit.

For regular smokers, the news is worse. A new study shows that chronic, heavy users of cannabis are not, as one might think, less impaired due to higher tolerance but in fact may be constantly impaired – even for some weeks after ceasing altogether.

So if driving under the influence of cannabis, with or without alcohol, always presents some level of danger and sometimes a very high one, the question is, how best to police it? Current enforcement differs from country to country, state to state.

In states where cannabis possession is illegal, it’s easy to impose a zero-tolerance approach. Having cannabis in your system might not necessarily mean you’re a danger on the roads, but it does show you were up to no good.

But for some experts working in this field, mixing drug enforcement with traffic safety is not the way to go, confusing two distinct purposes and creating a law people don’t respect. And in states where cannabis is legal for medical or recreational use – which is a growing number – another approach must be found. The options include requiring proof of impairment or setting a ‘per se’ limit. Like the system for drink driving, this establishes a defined limit of THC in the blood, over which a driver is considered legally impaired, regardless of whether they can stand on one leg or not.

Despite cannabis remaining illegal in New Zealand, rather than a zero-tolerance approach, our law does require proof of impairment – once alcohol is ruled out through roadside screening, drivers suspected of being impaired by drugs are subjected to a standardised field sobriety test (SFST).

To the untrained observer, the SFST might seem something like guesswork, but when performed by a trained officer, it’s surprisingly effective. Developed in the 1970s, before the advent of alcohol breathalyser technology, the SFST was originally used to detect drunk drivers but is now routinely used to test for drugs. Amy Porath-Waller from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse has been studying the test and whether it’s fit for this new-found purpose. By comparing thousands of roadside SFST evaluations with the subsequent blood samples given, Porath-Waller says the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’.

“What our results are showing is that you are able to predict, from these four different classes of drugs we studied, the officer is able to detect if they’re impaired and the type of drug responsible for that impairment.”

In general, each of the common classes of drugs leaves its own ‘fingerprint’ under the SFST. So, for instance, cannabis-impaired drivers will have more difficulty with the ‘standing on one leg’ test than the ‘walk and turn’ test, where an alcohol-impaired driver would struggle with both. Similarly, the test for nystagmus (involuntary twitching of the eye) will pick up those affected by depressants but not cannabis.

If there’s an issue with the SFST, it’s the degree of training required and the time it takes to administer each test. For those enforcing the law, it doesn’t provide the ‘anywhere, any time’ sort of disincentive that people now associate with random roadside testing for alcohol.

New Zealand’s head of road policing, Superintendent Carey Griffiths, says, while drink driving remains the priority, next year will see further attention given to drug-impaired driver testing, including the best approach to take.

“My preference based on what I’ve seen and know so far is a saliva-based testing regime similar to what’s conducted in many of the Australian jurisdictions, because there is an element of general deterrence to that.”

Saliva testing might be quicker than a full SFST test but can still take up to eight minutes to administer, meaning it’s impractical to use the driftnet approach of alcohol checkpoints. The single-use disposable test kits aren’t cheap either, and overseas experience has shown widespread random testing isn’t particularly effective.

In 2009, Victorian Police randomly tested nearly 28,000 motorists and found just 300 tested positive for drugs – around 1 percent. Canadian research also shows that, despite having a high rate of drug-impaired driving, in 2011, just 1.4 percent of total impaired convictions were for drugs. On those numbers, an average driver could drive under the influence of drugs 16,500 times – or every day for 45 years – before being charged.

In Australian states such as Victoria and Queensland, they’ve moved away from random testing towards an intelligence-based approach, pinpointing neighbourhoods and locations where drug use is more likely. Queensland’s zero-tolerance legislation only requires the presence of cannabis – there’s no need for impairment. If New Zealand were to head in this direction, we’d need to legislate to remove impairment from the offence.

The other option, says Superintendent Griffiths, is to consider a per se limit.

“It would be possible to get a panel together to determine an impairment level under which you’re at a legal zero, so you’re not dealing with residual effects. And you can set impairment levels for different drugs and their analogues, so that’s a way around it.”

Much time and effort has gone in to studying the level of impairment caused by ingesting different quantities of illegal and legal drugs and trying to establish an equivalent to the 0.05 percent BAC level. On paper, it seems a sensible approach, and it’s been adopted in Washington and Colorado, where cannabis has recently been legalised.

“A per se limit for cannabis is particularly problematic,” says Dr Logan, who points out there’s a big difference between testing in a lab and real-world enforcement. The time between someone being stopped by Police and giving a blood sample can easily be two hours. The active element of THC in cannabis metabolises, at least initially, much faster than alcohol and other drugs. This means a driver who was over the limit when they were caught may be well under by the time they give blood.

The method Dr Logan prefers – regardless of whether cannabis is illegal – is very close to what we currently have in

New Zealand: proof of impairment followed by proof of cannabis in the driver’s system, whatever the level.

“It’s really going to have to come back to good investigative Police work, and if you get some objective evidence that the person is under the influence of the drug then you base the prosecution on that. You say on the one hand the observations show the person was impaired, and you have a chemical test saying cannabis was in their system, and the court can decide if one is related to the other.”

Rather than blood tests, Dr Logan prefers an evidential oral fluid sample, as it can be collected roadside, usually within 15 minutes of driving.

One further advantage the impairment approach has over setting per se limits is the complexity around people using more than one drug at a time, known as polydrug use. As mentioned, alcohol and cannabis combine with a potentially lethal effect, even at levels where individually they would be acceptable under a per se regime. Add other drugs to the mix, in endless possible combinations, and it could become a legislative and judicial mess, whereas impairment is impairment, regardless of the cause.

This approach might not offer much in the way of a general deterrent, however, and Superintendent Griffiths says, while New Zealand’s drink-drive policy has an impact on the whole range of drinkers, the current drug policy is only dealing with people “at the top end of the curve”.

“I think until we deal with behaviours across the board – and that’s where a lot of the advertising is targeted at the moment – until we get into that space in an enforcement sense, I think we’ll just keep chipping away at the problem long term without making massive gains.”

Research currently being done by the Ministry of Transport with ESR looking at blood taken from drivers in fatal crashes should shed some light on New Zealand’s particular problem. At present, if a driver tests positive for alcohol, no further tests are required, making it difficult to get a firm grasp on the prevalence of poly-drug use. The research should give a clearer idea of the risks, although Superintendent Griffiths says, even then, we should approach with caution.

“I call it the sausages argument. You get five drivers who’ve crashed, and they’ve got sausages in the boot of the car. It doesn’t mean the sausages have caused the crash. People who consume large amounts of cannabis may also exhibit other incivilities, which can include [unsafe] driving behaviours; it might be that the type of person who crashes is the type of person who has cannabis in their system. I’m very careful not to mix correlation with causation.”