How to argue with those who support drug driving testing

Choose your words to drive change

We are now at 200,000 tests each year in NSW. Similar numbers in Victoria. Tens of thousands in every other state. I reckon we will be close to a million next year. That is a frigging big number. I have spoken in the press for a solid nine months.

The Drive Change campaign, which is fighting for equal rights for legal medical cannabis patients has had no refutation. Not one word of justification from the police or the road safety gurus. And that is because it is unjustifiable. Here is a response to those mythical people (do they exist?) who seek to justify Australia’s current drug driving practices.

Argument 1: But it’s random, so your chances of getting caught are minuscule.

It is not random. First, the police utilise number plate recognition to identify and test ‘suspicious’ vehicles. This, of course, includes vehicles where the driver has previously been in contact with the police and even more those who have previously been dealt with for drug detection driving. Second, the testing sites are often set up outside music festivals and in areas where drug use is high. And let’s not even talk about Mardi Grass blanket testing.

Argument 2: It’s a road safety measure.

It is not a road safety measure – it is a prohibition measure. If it was a road safety measure, it would have been ditched by now because there is no evidence that it has impacted the death or injury toll at all.

When random breath testing, seatbelts, airbags and 50km speed limits were introduced, all had a noticeable, provable impact on the road toll. Not so with drug driving measures. And this is not surprising given that it does not test affectation – see 3 below.

Argument 3: It stops people driving under the influence.

There is a separate offence of driving under the influence. In the thousands of cases of drug driving I dealt with as a Magistrate, I did not see a single set of facts alleging that the person was adversely affected by the drug.

And that is not surprising because they would have been charged with the other, more serious offence if they were. Besides, the testing levels are so low they do not equate to affectation at all – unlike alcohol.

Argument 4: But cannabis is illegal anyway.

That is true for some cannabis, but not for all. Cannabis is now prescribed widely in Australia with the approval of every government in the country. Even those with a prescription are subject to these laws. It is legal to use cannabis in many places in the world, including the Australian Capital Territory.

I saw many people who had returned from these places days ago and were still detected under the current regime. They had not committed any crime. Secondly, there are many illegal things (rape, murder, theft, domestic and family violence). Of course, none of these leads to a loss of licence because none make our roads more dangerous. The presence of THC in your mouth does not necessarily make you or your driving more dangerous.

Argument 5: Death and Injury stats show that illicit drugs are the major cause of road trauma.

This is false, and studies that seek to prove this are either anecdotal or unreliable. The major substance cause of death or injury is, in order: 

  1. Alcohol
  2. Prescription drugs.

One study seeks to connect high rates of cannabis detection in those who have died in motor vehicle incidents with road trauma. However, this study specifically does not make any causation claims. The detection levels are 2 nanograms, which no one seriously suggests has anything like a negative influence on driving. The counterarguments are pretty clear.

Argument 6: But it’s only a traffic offence – you don’t get a criminal record.

This is not true either. 

Although there are some differences between states, in essence, any conviction (or even where the offence is found proven, but a conviction is not recorded) still has significant impacts on employment, insurance and travel. No matter how it is defined, you also have a police record and court record of the suspension, fine or disqualification.

Argument 7: Well, it discourages drug use, and that must be a good thing.

It discourages some drug use, particularly cannabis. It does not discourage

  • Alcohol
  • Prescription drugs
  • Opioids including heroin
  • LSD
  • Magic mushrooms or
  • Many synthetic drugs. 

Also, cocaine is not tested in some States. 

Cannabis is fat-soluble and can remain in your system for a very long time, long after you’re impairment (if any) ends. And with cannabis patients, impairment is rare.

This testing methodology also encourages the use of amphetamines and cocaine because although they are detectable, the word on the street is that you are clear of those within 48 hours. And that is probably correct. I have yet to see a public health argument that supports these drug choices over medicinal or responsible use of cannabis.

Argument 8: Nowhere else has granted a medicinal exception because it is technically impossible. 

This is just not true. Tasmania has a medical/prescription exception, and the sky has not fallen in. Also, there are medical exceptions in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Norway and New Zealand. There are proposals for change before the Victorian and South Australian parliaments

Those who oppose medical exemptions generally have a vested interest – the police, big pharma and the alcohol lobby. Bizarrely, in NSW, there is a medical exemption for morphine, but not for cannabis. Go figure. 

Argument 9: It does not affect your insurance if it is only a detectable level. 

Well, let’s have a look at this policy from AAMI where there is an exclusion if your car is being driven by “anyone who had more than the legal limit for alcohol or drugs in their breath, blood, saliva or urine as shown by analysis”. 

Given that the legal limit for detection offences is zero, this poses real problems for those following their doctor’s directions or an illicit user with a minute detection. 

Argument 10: Prescription drugs are safer for drivers than cannabis. 

No evidence shows this. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that those who use cannabis on prescription reduce their use of prescription drugs, particularly opioids – generally by half. In other words, there is a strong argument that drivers with merely detectable levels are likely to be less affected than if they are driving on prescription drugs.

And this makes sense – we all know people who are using medicinal cannabis for (say) generalised pain and, as a result, use much fewer prescription medicines like opioids and benzodiazepines. 

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