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ESR supports calls for a saliva test for roadside drug tests

The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) who conduct drug tests on blood samples for a range of government organisations is supporting the introduction of a roadside saliva (oral fluid) test for drug-impaired drivers.

ESR forensic toxicologist Helen Poulsen, was responding to the release by the government of a public consultation document on the issue of drug driver testing, following the number of road fatalities connected to drug use.

Dr Poulsen says while the currently available oral fluid tests are not as fast and as accurate as the roadside breath alcohol test, oral fluid is a still a good model for screening as long as it backed up by laboratory tests.

She says a number of different biological samples can be tested for the evidence of drug use, including oral fluid, however the presence of drugs does not necessarily mean that the person is impaired by the drug.

“Blood is the best sample for analysis, however taking a blood sample or urine sample at the roadside would be impractical and possibly considered by some to be too invasive.”

ESR does analysis on hospitalised drivers and impaired drivers. Between January 2014 and May 2018, ESR’s analysis of blood samples of impaired drivers submitted by Police showed nearly 60 percent had used cannabis and over 40 percent used methamphetamine.

Dr Poulsen adds that while alcohol, cannabis and methamphetamine are commonly used, and of concern in relation to road safety, there are many other drugs that could affect a person’s ability to drive safely.

“These drugs are not covered by currently available roadside saliva tests, this includes synthetic cannabinoids, which are the drugs linked to recent road fatalities.”


She says roadside testing for drugs is also much slower than alcohol testing, the number of drugs that can be tested is limited and the results are not ‘evidential’. Laboratory testing of oral fluid or blood is required to prove which drug is present.

Dr Poulsen says ESR is currently working with a New Zealand biotech company on developing a new saliva based test for drug impaired drivers, which can be used to rapidly detect specifically targeted drugs and cover a much broader range of drugs than the currently available tests.

The technology, developed by AuramerBio, uses synthetic DNA that is programmed to recognise specifically targeted drugs.

ESR currently carries out drug and alcohol tests on blood samples submitted by NZ Police, the Ministry of Justice and NZTA.

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