Updated 07 August 2015

Drugs and driving

The Metro police plan to start testing drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs at roadblocks. Is this a realistic task? How would it be done? Health24 investigates.

The Metro police are planning on testing drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs at roadblocks.

Yet questions have been raised as to whether this is a feasible, or realistic, task. While crime statistics indicate that illegal drug use in the country is on the increase – the most common are dagga and cocaine/crack - will this be enough to convince the authorities of the necessity to do this testing? And how will it be carried out?

Many experts believe that the biggest problem with this type of testing is that although it is a good idea, there are too many obstacles which need to be overcome first.

Problems with testing at roadblocks
While testing for alcohol at roadblocks is common practice, testing for drugs, which are illegal substances, may create a different set of problems altogether.

The two major issues are the fact that the tests are difficult to carry out at a roadblock, and that the results of such testing may often be influenced by the effects of prescription medication.

“There are certain ways to test for drugs, such as through urine or hair, but it is not feasible to carry such tests out on the side of the road for many reasons, says Sarah Fischer, Executive Director of the Substance Misuse Advocacy, Research and Training (Smart) group. “These problems include how one would actually go about testing, the chance of contamination, expense and of course the fact that if a person had taken legal medication, this could show up as a positive in a drug test.”

“Unless there is a protocol set up, this kind of system will not work. It is very different from testing for alcohol – as alcohol is a legal substance and the test is non-invasive.”

‘Drug-driving is dangerous’
Drivers are often taken in for blood or urine tests if they are suspected of drugged driving, but said tests are not carried out at roadblocks, according to Inspector Edna Mamonyane of the Johannesburg Metro Police (JMPD).

She added that the drugs were a factor in many crimes that were committed.

The stats
The police’s National Crime Statistics confirm this, and showed that there has been a 14.3 percent increase in driving under the influence of drugs/alcohol and an 8.2 percent increase in drug-related crime.

The statistics also show that almost 80 percent of crimes are linked to substance abuse and as much as two thirds of contact crimes are related to specific social and behavioural patterns which involve substance abuse.

The effect of drugging and driving
Drugs, whether legal or not, contain psychoactive substances which affect the central nervous system in different ways and different drugs will have different effects on users and their reactions while driving, according to Shamim Garda, National Executive Director for the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca).

“Stimulants would include drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines and caffeine-based medications; while depressants, such as heroin and other prescription drugs, can affect cognitive functioning, visual perception and reaction times,” she said.

This would mean that it would affect a driver’s response times. A stimulant could possibly cause the driver to drive much faster and recklessly, while a depressant would have the opposite effect and make the driver slow to react at intersections and in response to other drivers on the road.

Drowsiness is also a side-effect with sedative type drugs is also a problem; as would be hallucinations, which are the side-effect of drugs such as tik.

She added that although there are currently no statistics on drugging and driving, according to the Sanca Treatment Profile (2007), based on treatment received, the most common drugs are alcohol, dagga and cocaine/crack.

She said that it was a good idea that drivers be tested at roadblocks for drugs in their system. She added that the idea had been suggested before and that it was a good one.

“However, it requires specific training and reliable equipment for specially trained policemen. Drugs other than alcohol are becoming an increasing problem. A study done some years ago at CSIR, showed there are other means to test for drug abuse which relate to observing behaviour and functioning, though,” according to Garda.

Drug abuse trends in SA
Figures for drug use were on the rise, according to Andreas Plüddemann, Senior Scientist for the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Unit at the Medical Research Council in Cape Town.

“It is definitely a growing problem, especially the use of methamphetamine ('tik') in the Western Cape. Heroin use is also on the increase in a number of cities such as Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Nelspruit, Witbank and recently Durban - in the form of a cheap, smoked heroin called 'sugars'. Cocaine use is also common and becoming more so in the Eastern Cape, primarily in Port Elizabeth and East London.”

“Methamphetamine is popular because of the high energy levels it gives the user. Some also use it in order to lose weight,” he said.

Compared to alcohol usage, Plüddemann said that dagga use is very common, but hard drug use is still much less than alcohol usage.

“This varies from city to city, and from urban areas to rural areas. Different drugs are also used in different places.

Surveys seem to indicate that almost 20% of South Africans have tried dagga at least once, while probably at least 50% would have tried alcohol. Accurate number for hard drug usage would be much lower, so it’s very difficult to give national averages, but I estimate it’s probably most probably not more than 1-2%,” according to Plüddemann.

Types of drugs
Dagga: This is the most common drug in South Africa as it is cheap and readily available.

It is either smoked or ingested and takes only a few minutes to take effect, bringing about feelings of euphoria, hallucinations, increased perceptions (not always accurate), short-term memory loss, giggling, anxiety and paranoia.

Long-term effects include glassy, red eyes, sleepiness at strange times, loss of motivation and interest in activities previously enjoyed, weight gain or loss, memory lapses, concentration difficulty, lung and respiratory problems and difficulty learning new things.

Ecstasy: Usually in tablet form, small and white in colour, but can be yellow/brown.

It is a stimulant and can have a mild hallucinogenic effect.

Effects include euphoria, heightened emotional and sensory experiences, and uninhibited feelings and enhanced energy.

The long-term effects of this drug are not known, but it is known that it can change the structure of the brain and prune the serotonin receptors.

Psychological effects include fits of depression, anxiety attacks and feelings of intense paranoia.

Heroin: pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste; illicit heroin can be white/dark brown. It is usually snorted, injected or smoked.

It is two to three times more potent than morphine and cuts through the blood brain barrier 100 times faster than morphine does.

Injecting heroin into a vein can produce an effect in four to eight seconds; injecting it into a muscle or under the skin can produce effects in five to eight minutes.

Heroin depresses the central nervous system. It locks onto the body’s endorphin receptors ad mimics the body’s feel-good hormones.

The symptoms include mood swings, personality changes, dilated pupils, changes in weight and appearance, slurred speech, decreased sex drive and retarded social and emotional development.

Tik: this is otherwise known crystal meth. It is also known as the "stay-awake drug that makes you violent" and is one of the most popular drugs of choice in South Africa, especially amongst the youth.

Recent studies showing children as young as 13 are using it. It has been marketed as a weight-loss product and some of its side effects include psychotic symptoms, hallucinations and violence.

It’s also known as “tuk-tuk”, "tik", "crystal", "straws" and "globes". It is highly addictive and is often manufactured in the home, which means it is readily available on the streets.

Mandrax: This comes in pill form and can be swallowed or injected, but is usually smoked. The tablets are crushed and mixed with dagga.

The effects take place after a few minutes and the user will feel relaxed, calm and peaceful. But after the effect wears off, some users could feel aggressive.

Symptoms of excessive use include nausea, vomiting and stomach pains. Red, glazy and puffy eyes are common.

Cocaine and crack
: It’s a white powder and is a local anaesthetic which acts as a stimulant to the central nervous system.

Cocaine is inhaled, injected, smoked or applied directly to the nasal membranes or gums.

Minutes after taking this drug the user will feel a sense of euphoria and excitement, confidence and strength.

Death from cardiac or respiratory arrest is a symptom of excessive use and other symptoms include ulceration of the nasal membrane, weight loss, tremors, insomnia, impotence, constipations and seizures.

Personality changes include deceptiveness, stealing, a superior attitude, short-temper, work-related problems, depression, being accident prone, confusion, anxiety, paranoia, dulled emotional responses and a loss of interest in sex.

Magic mushrooms: It can take from 15 to 60 minutes for effects to be felt and trips can last between three and six hours.

The effects include pupil dilation, distorted vision, hallucinations, ataxia, and feelings of euphoria, mood swings, laughter, anxiety, paranoia and confusion.

Magic mushrooms can act as a trigger for latent psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Sources: Alcohol and Drug Abuse Trends,,

Shamim Garda, National Executive Director for the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca),

Andreas Plüddemann, Senior Scientist: Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Unit, Medical Research Council,

National Crime Statistics, 2007,

(Amy Henderson,, September 2007)


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