MPs back random drug tests motion
By Owain Johnston-Barnes and Jonathan Bell
Published Jun 17, 2014
Tougher line: MPs and Senators could face random drug testing in the future after a vote was taken in the House of Assembly
((Photo by David Skinner))
Holders of public office are set to be subject to random drug tests with a “three strikes” policy for legislators who test positive for cannabis and suspension for those who test positive for hard drugs.
The motion, moved by Independent MP Terry Lister, and unanimously opposed by the Progressive Labour Party, was attacked by the Opposition as irrelevant, invasive and politically motivated.
The debate also saw sharp accusations traded between Opposition leader Marc Bean and Mr Lister [see separate story].
Introducing the Joint Select Committee’s report on the testing policy, Mr Lister said that drugs could be easily obtained throughout the Island and the use of tobacco, alcohol, cannabis and harder drugs have had a significant impact on the community.
Mr Lister also noted that many members of the public believed legislators behaved above the law.
“We must dispel this belief,” he said. “It’s time to show that we are not only not above the law but that we operate fully within the law.”
He said the process would test for both soft drugs, such as cannabis, and harder drugs such as heroin, opium and cocaine.
Under the suggested drug testing scheme, at least 15 random MPs and Senators would be tested every three months. They would be notified that they would be tested on the morning of the test, with an inch-and-a-half of hair collected.
In the case of soft drugs, an initial failure will move the MP or Senator from the random pool to a targeted pool. After three failures, the member would be temporarily suspended and the public would be notified.
In the case of harder drugs, members would be subject to increased testing and required to receive drug treatment, with further failures resulting in prolonged suspensions and public notifications. Refusing to take the test would count as a failure.
Mr Lister said the issue was not about drugs but about leadership, saying it was appropriate for the Island’s leaders to make a symbolic stand to make a statement.
However, PLP MP Walton Brown questioned the purpose of the scheme, asking why Government was hanging its hat on drug testing as the standard for legislators rather than transparency, ethical behaviour or putting the people first.
He said that drug testing should be used sparingly, saying there was no clear defensible rational in bringing such testing for the House of Assembly, and describing it as politically inspired “selective morality”.
Mr Brown also argued there were flaws in the proposal, saying that while MPs were to answer to the Speaker under the scheme, there was no suggestion as to who the Speaker would answer to should they fail. And he said that because of the nature of the testing, an MP who indulged in cannabis use in a jurisdiction where it was legal would still test positive three months later.
Calling himself a liberal, and joking that he might have been happier “if I could have smoked a joint before I came into Parliament”, Warwick North East MP Mark Pettingill told the House: “There is a distinction and a line that has to be drawn between morality and legality.
“The reality is right now that the possession, supply and cultivation of marijuana is illegal.”
Mr Bean called out: “Cocaine, too.” Mr Pettingill responded: “Cocaine, heroin — these drugs are illegal.”
Mr Pettingill said he had been chastised over breaches of the code of conduct, adding: “Now we’re going to say it’s okay to break a law that we don’t like and we shouldn’t do anything about it? Well, that to me is frankly hypocritical.”
Although the law might seem wrong, he said, “until we make it so, I am bound by the rules”.
Shadow Attorney General Michael Scott called the move “an exercise in policing our conduct”, a “complete and utter misapplication of the reasons we are here in Parliament”, and a waste of time in the absence of any statistics showing concern over drug abuse in the legislature.
“I suspect there is something up,” Mr Scott said, quoting from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Public Works Minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin observed that no Opposition members had taken part in the committee. Mr Brown responded that their absence had been deliberate.”
Ms Gordon-Pamplin said voters had to see legislators holding themselves to the same standards that were expected of the public.
In the end, the report was approved over the dissenting PLP.
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