A Beginner’s Guide to Drug Testing

As technology advances at a rapid pace, drug testing is becoming increasingly commonplace – whether on the road or in the workplace.

But for those who have not previously undergone a drug test, it can be difficult to know what to expect.

This blog discusses some of the most common drug tests around and some of the laws that relate to drug testing.

What Does a Drug Test Involve?

Drug tests are usually performed using a sample of saliva, blood or urine; but hair, sweat and even your fingerprints can be analysed to determine long-term drug use. In Australia, the most common types of drug tests are saliva, blood and urine tests.

Saliva (Lick) Tests

If you’ve spent some time on the road, you may have been the subject of a random roadside drug test. Roadside drug testing analyses saliva through a ‘lick’ test. It requires drivers to provide a sample of saliva by licking a ‘test pad’ on a portable drug testing device.

Lick tests are able to detect the presence of cannabis and methylamphetamines, such as speed, ice, crystal meth and ecstacy. However, they cannot yet detect cocaine or heroin.

If you test positive to a roadside lick test, you’ll be required to accompany a police officer to a drug van or police station to undergo a secondary test using an ‘oral fluid screening device.’

If this confirms a positive result, you’ll be prohibited from driving for 24 hours, however you won’t be charged by police at that time.

Instead, you’ll be allowed to go on your way while your oral fluid is sent away for analysis. If an analysis reveals the presence of cannabis, methylamphetamine or MDMA in your saliva, you’ll receive a court attendance notice in the mail for drug driving.

You will then be required to attend court at a future date to enter a plea of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ to the charges.

Blood and Urine Tests

Other less common forms of drug testing involve the analysis of a urine or blood sample.

For instance, you may be required to provide a blood or urine sample if police suspect that you are under the influence of a drug which is unable to be detected using a lick test (such as heroin or cocaine), or if you are involved in a fatal road accident. Blood and urine tests can generally test all forms of illicit, synthetic and prescription drugs.

Blood tests are usually undertaken in a hospital, under the supervision of a doctor. One part of the sample is analysed at a government laboratory, and the remaining part is given to the person tested so that they may have it independently analysed if they wish.

Some workplaces and sporting organisations also require employees to provide urine samples on a regular basis. This generally requires the employee to provide a urine sample, which is then tested using a dipstick. If the test discloses a positive result, the sample is sent away for analysis in a lab.

It is not illegal to simply have drugs in your system, provided that you aren’t engaging in certain acts such as driving. But if you register a positive reading during a drug test performed by an employer or sporting association, you may risk losing your job or being suspended or banned.

How Long Can Drugs Show Up in My System?

The length of time that drugs can stay in your system depends on a multitude of factors – including the type of drug consumed, how much was used, when it was taken and the type of test performed, as well as personal factors such as your weight, gender, age and rate of metabolism.

According to the Australian Drug Foundation, the following is a rough guide as to how long different drugs can be detected by common testing methods.

It should, however, be emphasised that this is just a guide and that there have been reports of drugs showing up long after the periods listed.

Substance Saliva Test Urine Test Blood Test
Cannabis Up to 4 hours Up to 90 days 20 – 36 hours
Amphetamines 12 – 24 hours 3 – 4 days 4 – 8 hours
Cocaine Not detectable Up to 4 days 40 – 90 minutes
MDMA/ecstasy 12 – 24 hours 2 days 4 – 8 hours
Opiates (heroin) Not detectable 2 – 3 days 6 hours

Can I Be Charged if I Refuse a Drug Test?

If police require you to submit to a drug test and you refuse, you could face serious penalties – which can be even greater than those that apply if drugs are found in your system.

For instance, refusing to provide a saliva or blood sample carries a maximum fine of $3,300. You’ll also face an automatic disqualification period of 3 years, which may be reduced down to a minimum of 6 months if there are good reasons to do so.

These same penalties apply if you alter the amount of the drug before a drug test. Heavier penalties apply if it’s your second or subsequent offence in the past five years.

If you’re involved in a fatal accident and fail to provide a blood or urine sample, you could face a maximum prison sentence of 18 months.

What Happens if I Test Positive on the Road?

In contrast, if you submit to a random drug test on the road and return a positive result, the maximum fine is $1,100. You’ll also be automatically disqualified from driving for 6 months, but you may be able to have this reduced to the minimum of 3 months. In such cases, a good lawyer may even be able to argue for a ‘section 10’ – which means no conviction, licence disqualification or fine.

It is therefore in your best interests to submit to a roadside drug test if required to do so by police.

Am I Guilty if the Drugs Didn’t Affect My Driving?

Some road users may be surprised to learn that you are still guilty of an offence even if the drugs had no impact on your driving at the time – the presence of any amount of drugs in your system is enough.

In these cases, you can be charged with the offence of ‘drug driving,’ which carries a maximum penalty of $1,100 and an automatic disqualification period of 6 months for your first offence, which can be reduced to a minimum of 3 months.

Heavier penalties apply if it’s your second or subsequent offence in 5 years.

Drug Driving vs DUI

Drug driving is different to the offence of ‘driving under the influence’ (DUI), which requires police to prove that your driving was actually affected by the drug.

DUI carries a maximum penalty of $2,200 and/or 9 months imprisonment.

Those who are guilty of DUI also face an automatic disqualification period of 12 months, which can be reduced to a minimum of 6 months. Again, heavier penalties apply if it’s your second or subsequent major traffic offence in the past five years.

Navigating the court system can be difficult, and it often pays to have an experienced drug defence lawyer on your side, as it may be possible to avoid a conviction on your criminal record and a licence disqualification.

Ugur Nedim About Ugur Nedim
Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Drug Defence Lawyers.

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