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Herald on Sunday Editorial: No time for reefer madness panic

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Balloon pilot Lance Hopping had traces of the drug in his system. Photo / APN
Balloon pilot Lance Hopping had traces of the drug in his system. Photo / APN

Both as Tourism Minister and as Prime Minister, John Key has done the right thing in reacting swiftly to the news that three adventure-tourism operators who died in accidents had traces of cannabis in their systems.

Lance Hopping, the pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Carterton in February, killing 11, and two of the four skydive masters who died in the 2010 Fox Glacier plane crash that claimed nine lives, all had traces of the drug, it emerged this week.

Conscious of the potential damage to our international reputation as a great place for an action-packed holiday, Key front-footed the matter. He said he was "appalled" by the "completely unacceptable" situation and added that mandatory drug testing in the adventure-tourism industry would probably need to be introduced.

Such a strong statement from the top was needed. The father of 24-year-old Englishman Bradley Coker, who died in the 2010 crash, has been widely interviewed in the British press this week, urging people not to come here.

The drug revelations will surely add fuel to that fire.

But if Key's response is the proper one for international consumption, we should be at pains to avoid a rush to judgment here. Several media organisations quickly scampered for the moral high ground, among them Mary Wilson on Radio New Zealand National's Checkpoint, who was somewhat hysterically referring to "drug abuse" and a divemaster "[jumping] out of a plane when he was stoned".

Such extravagant utterances serve no good purpose and are scientifically illiterate in any case. Cannabis can be detected in the system for several days after its psychoactive effects have worn off and the accident investigation findings may not automatically be extrapolated to prove impairment - or irresponsibility - on the part of individuals no longer alive. In any case, the official report into the Fox Glacier tragedy found it was casued by design modifications and poor loading, which are not divemasters' responsibilities.

Certainly, tourists have a right to expect that adventure operators are drug- and alcohol-free and the Prime Minister's suggestion of a mandatory drug-testing regime is probably the way to go. But in the present instance, it is quite simply impossible to say that Lance Hopping was stoned on the day of that tragedy above the Wairarapa countryside. For the sake of his loved ones, also bereaved by that tragedy, his name should not be casually tarnished.

- Herald on Sunday

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