South Australia has become the latest state to explore cannabis driving law reform with Greens upper house MP Tammy Franks taking up the crusade in collaboration with lobby group Drive Change.
Franks introduced a bill in parliament yesterday that will seek to lift the legal threat that hangs over patients holding medicinal cannabis prescriptions.
The bill is similar to the one drawn up by Reason Party leader Fiona Patten in Victoria.
Franks said she has been in touch with Patten with the two politicians “actively collaborating to share insights from each jurisdiction as part of this important proposed law reform”.
Under current Australia-wide laws, drivers with any amount of THC in their system – however small – can be prosecuted even if there is no evidence to suggest their driving is impaired.
The industry has long called for an overhaul of the law which is widely felt to discriminate against medicinal cannabis users and often deters patients from taking the medicine they need.
Many face the distressing choice of either taking medicinal cannabis and risking prosecution – and possibly losing their job – or avoiding the drug altogether.
Ahead of tabling the bill, Franks held a roundtable discussion with parliamentary colleagues to raise awareness of the Drive Change campaign, which is fronted by former magistrate David Heilpern.
“In South Australia, and all jurisdictions in Australia, current drug-driving laws still discriminate against patients who are taking legally prescribed medicinal cannabis without impairment,” Franks said. “This is based on stigma, not science, and continues despite the legislative reforms that have allowed this medicine to be legally prescribed.
“Many patients are choosing to consume CBD-only medications for fear of random roadside drug testing and the risk of loss of licence because THC has been detected – and not because they are driving impaired.
“GPs who do prescribe are advising patients against driving because any risk of loss of licence would have far reaching impacts on them.
“Patients should not have to choose between medicine or mobility.”
The Greens’ push has been backed by the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) which said the current laws discriminate against medicinal cannabis patients.
“People lose their licence, and sometimes their job, not because of impaired driving, but because of flawed laws,” ALA South Australia state president Sarah Vinall said.
“Drivers who take opioids or other prescription medication do not find themselves in court or risk losing their licence, and neither should drivers who have taken a prescribed and legal dose of cannabis.
“We support the Bill introduced today because it will fix this unfair and outdated law that severely penalises medicinal cannabis patients.”
Vinall said the laws are outdated, having been developed before cannabis became a legally recognised prescribed medication,
“The law needs to change to stay relevant,” she said. “We urge all legislators in South Australia, and the South Australian Government, to support this Bill.”
Adelaide doctor Dr Joel Wren, a prescriber of medicinal cannabis, also backed the move.
“Patients are impacted by not being able to access their best medical option, invariably in circumstances where existing medications have failed or where side effects like addiction and accidental overdose are ever present,” he said.
“In many cases, a patient forced to return to opioids or benzodiazepines is taking unnecessary health risks and many pain and anti-anxiety medications are of themselves a risk on roads, especially when combined with alcohol.”
Heilpern, who heads Drive Change, said the campaign wants to “engage with lawmakers in every state and territory”.
“In South Australia we will continue to liaise with lawmakers as the bill proceeds through parliament and provide a valuable conduit between that process and the broader public by way of a digital nationwide campaign,” he said.
“We’ll be amplifying the voice of medical professionals, lawmakers and industry who support the change and most importantly patients who need these horrifically unjust laws changed.
“We encourage anyone who supports this cause to reach out to us at drivechangemc.org.au so they can be a part of helping to Drive Change.”