While officers on duty must not be under the influence of alcohol and illegal drugs, Police has shifted its focus to also emphasise the risks of impairment caused by prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
- strong painkillers (including opioids such as codeine or tramadol)
- medicinal cannabis
- allergy and nausea medication
- sleep, depression or anxiety medication
- heart and epilepsy medication.
So how do you ensure medicine prescribed to get you back on track after an injury or to manage a condition won’t put you or others at risk?
Police Association senior legal officer Liz Gooch and senior employment adviser Amanda Craig give their take on the refocused policy and offer advice on what members can do to keep themselves and others safe.
Talk to your health professional
It sounds simple, and it is – it’s also the best way to ensure you are given accurate advice. Be aware of the potential side effects of medication. Amanda advises members to let their health professional know exactly what their role entails, including potential use of a firearm or urgent duty driving – and that redeployment can happen at a moment’s notice and might involve these duties.
You need to know whether the medication you are taking may trigger a positive drug test or potentially impair your judgment or decision making. “There may be an alternative medication that is available,” Amanda says.
“I think the challenge is when you've got a long-term injury, where people are taking medication to manage symptoms or manage pain. Those members are the ones who really need to be talking to their medical practitioner or specialist and saying, ‘This is my role – I could be required to drive well over the speed limit or discharge a firearm at an armed offender’.”
Be aware of how you're feeling
“If you are feeling in any way impaired, then you shouldn't be doing frontline duties on that day,” Liz says. Signs of impairment can include feeling drowsy, blurred vision, slowed reaction times or dizziness and even feeling “wired”. If you are feeling at all out-of-sorts, then you need to talk to your supervisor and do something else because it’s best not to run the risk, she says.
Be careful when changing or taking new medications
If you are starting new medication or changing your dose of a current medication, such as an antidepressant, you should be discussing the potential effects with your doctor and asking whether it could result in a positive drug test. These discussions may help your doctor decide which is the right medication for you.
“You might look at starting the new medication when you've got some time off,” Liz says. “Or you might look at doing some alternative duties for a while.”
She also says that if you are on substantive pain medication, ask yourself whether you should even be at work or doing alternative duties and rehabilitating until you no longer need the medication.
Be careful about what you put in your body
Another area of concern for Police is the contents of some health supplements – such as fat burners, protein powders and pre-workout powders – especially if they are manufactured overseas.
Liz recalls the case of a member who became aggressive while using workout supplements. Members need to be cautious as some supplements can have ingredients that affect your mood, behaviour and responses, she says.
“The bottom line is, be careful and be very mindful about what you take – including [old] medication that's in the medicine cabinet or medication that was prescribed for someone else.”
Both Liz and Amanda stress that members are not obliged to disclose to Police exactly what medicines they have been prescribed – that is private information. However, when a member is subject to a drug test, they must answer “yes” on the testing form to indicate they are taking some form of medication. They must also be aware of and manage any actual or potential impairments.
Liz says the association’s main concern is that a member involved in a critical incident, such as a shooting, later unknowingly returns a positive drug test because they had, in good faith, been taking medication prescribed to them.
They also say not enough emphasis is being put on the effects of fatigue resulting from changeable work patterns and work hours. “If you're talking about impairment, fatigue and stress, these are probably going to impact you in terms of impairment around decision making far sooner than most prescription medications will,” Liz says.