We can't afford to take chances, says Key

17:00, May 10 2012

Prime Minister John Key has promised to do everything he can to protect New Zealand's valuable adventure tourism industry, including investigating mandatory drug testing.

He was speaking in Queenstown yesterday after revelations that Carterton balloon pilot Lance Hopping had cannabis in his system, as did two skydiving masters who died in the 2010 Fox Glacier plane crash that killed nine people.

"Adventure tourism is absolutely critical to New Zealand's offering of tourism activities and it is absolutely critical it's safe," said Mr Key, who is also tourism minister.

Mandatory drug testing, which had already been introduced in heavy-labour industries, could now be a necessary step for the industry.

"I believe that's an initiative that may be necessary," Mr Key said. "Our view is that it is totally unacceptable to have people working in the adventure tourism industry with significant drugs or alcohol in their system. We can't afford to take risks."

Lower Hutt man Bob Hopkirk, whose son Stephen and partner Belinda Harter died in the Carterton crash, said the news that Mr Hopping was flying with cannabis in his system was a disappointing sign of a "sick society".

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The Transport Accident Investigation Commission told the bereaved families last week about the finding, and the briefing was greeted with a "general reaction that it was bad news", Mr Hopkirk said. "The whole question of drugs to me doesn't appeal at all ... It's a sign of a sick society, if you ask me."

But unlike some of the other families, he was not angry. "A lot of people like us have said, `So what?', because it can't change what happened, and we're too busy designing headstones and the like at the moment."

TAIC investigator in charge Ian McClelland said the initial blood-test results needed to be analysed independently, and considered alongside the time taken before the autopsy was conducted, and Mr Hopping's background.

"There are simply too many variables to give a figure ... and further research needs to be undertaken to ... put it in context."

Tests for alcohol had also been taken, but results had been inconclusive and further analysis was needed, Mr McClelland said.

Police have said that Mr Hopping was reportedly at home in bed early on the night before the crash.

Balloon Aviation Association president Martyn Stacey denied that drug-use was widespread within the industry.

"It's a shock. The ballooning community as a whole is usually a family affair ... and I would not say that alcohol or drug-use is indicative of the community."

On Wednesday Mr Key said about 50 people had lost their lives in the last eight years in adventure tourism activities in New Zealand.

Yesterday he said that while there would always be an element of risk attached to adventure activities, it was his intention to minimise that and ensure the industry followed world best practices. "We can't afford to take risks."

BIG RISKS FROM EVEN A LITTLE CANNABIS

The effects of smoking even small amounts of cannabis can include loss of inhibition, altered sensory perception and impaired thinking.

However, experts agree that it is hard to tell from autopsy results exactly when cannabis was smoked, how much was smoked, and what the level of impairment might have been at the time of death.

In a heavy smoker, it could take 15 to 65 days for all traces of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - the active chemical in cannabis - to clear the body, Leo Schep, a toxicologist with the National Poisons Centre, said.

In a light user, it could take between four and 12 days.

Dr Schep said that the length of time before samples were collected from the body could also affect measured drug concentrations.

"Drugs will redistribute within the body following death, and THC is no exception."

Kirk Hardy, chief executive of the New Zealand Drug Detection Agency, said that it was impossible to tell how impaired a person was at a particular time from a cannabis test as there were too many variables, including a person's metabolism and how they reacted to drugs.

Fairfax Media