Drug figures revealed
Southland has the highest rate of workers recording "non-negative" drug test results for synthetic cannabis than anywhere else in the country, according to New Zealand Drug Detection Agency figures.
A non-negative result means there is an indication a drug has been detected in a urine sample but the sample needs to be sent to a laboratory for confirmation before it can be determined positive.
Last year, 3400 Southland workers were asked to provide a urine sample. Of those, 180 returned a non-negative result. Cannabis was the most common drug detected, making up 50.3 per cent of the non-negative results. Opiates made up 38.3 per cent and synthetic cannabis was third, on 8.6 per cent.
While the Southland cannabis figures were among the lowest in the country, the synthetic cannabis figure was more than twice the national average of 3.3 per cent and also the highest in the country. Otago recorded the second-highest figure, 6.8 per cent.
It was the first time synthetic cannabis testing results were included in the agency's annual report.
During 2013 the agency carried out 12,760 synthetic cannabis tests throughout New Zealand.
Testing could be done by employers at pre-employment, after an incident in the workplace, when a retest was needed, for a random test, if there were reasonable cause, or voluntarily.
The drug testing agency's Otago and Southland general manager John Galliven said requests for synthetic cannabis tests from Southland companies were becoming much more common.
The need for testing for synthetic cannabis could be attributed to workers substituting cannabis for synthetic cannabis, Mr Galliven said.
Non-negative tests in 2012 showed cannabis made up 62 per cent of such tests in Southland.
"Employers are aware people are substituting cannabis for synthetic cannabis," he said.
However, southern union leaders have criticised the processes and testing regime of the New Zealand Drug Detection Agency, saying the agency was creating a drug problem by using a urine-based testing system.
Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union Southland organiser Trevor Hobbs said the testing was not addressing the issue of drugs and alcohol in the workplace but was creating another class of drug users.
"Everyone knows cannabis stays in the system for weeks. A urine test doesn't show if a person had a joint hours before work or weeks ago," he said. "A worker on a four-day-on, four-day-off roster may have a puff on a joint on their first day off and then get hit with a urine test on their first day back. This doesn't give an indication if they are impaired or not."
The union was pushing to introduce swab testing for workers, he said.
Swab testing would provide results from the previous eight hours and provide a much more accurate indication that a worker was impaired, Mr Hobbs said.
Southland-Otago Meat Workers' Union general secretary Gary Davis said synthetic cannabis had become an issue in the workplace because it was being used as a replacement for cannabis.
He said it was no coincidence that since urine-based testing was introduced in Southland, synthetic cannabis use was on the rise.
Workers who may have smoked a joint days and weeks before being at work were getting into trouble and turning to other drugs, he said.
"People who can't give up cannabis turn to this stuff and harder drugs to hopefully avoid detection. It's a real concern."
Mr Davis also advocated saliva tests and swabbing as a better alternative to meet workplace health and safety standards.
"If a worker needs to be tested for a health and safety incident, a swab will show if there are drugs present from the last 8 to 12 hours, not from weeks ago," he said.
At a glance
The number of on-site workplace drug tests conducted nationwide by the New Zealand Drug Detection Agency increased from 68,346 tests carried out in 2012 to 81,410 in 2013.
There were 3400 on-site drug-screening tests done in Southland in 2013 up from the 2903 in 2012.
Non-negative tests – an indication that a presence of a drug is detected – returned by Southland workers dropped from 6 per cent in 2012 to 5.3 per cent in 2013.
The Southland Times