The medicinal cannabis industry will never be financially viable in Australia without drug-driving reform, the sector has been warned.

Former magistrate and Drive Change campaigner David Heilpern told delegates at the Australian Medicinal Cannabis Symposium that the patient base would not be big enough to sustain the industry if doctors are only prescribing the medicine to those who don’t drive. 

David Heilpern
David Heilpern: industry won’t be viable without drug-driving reform

And he questioned why investors would see it as an attractive opportunity when the potential customer base is so small.  

He said: “This is an industry that’s starting to attract big business from funders who obviously see it as financially viable. I think they’re kidding themselves while these drug-driving laws are there. What’s the point of putting $100 million into a company if the product cannot legally be used by 95% of the adult population? This is just crazy.”

Heilpern said many doctors had told him of patients who had refused to use medicinal cannabis if it meant risking their licence, but that didn’t make the roads any safer.

“They go back to their opioids and they drive on the roads probably far more dangerously than they would have if they had taken that prescription,” he added. 

He said part of the challenge for campaigners is that drug-driving laws are set by state governments, meaning they have to be lobbied individually, making it time consuming and expensive.

And while a “significant proportion” of the industry have got behind Drive Change according to Heilpern, “if we had hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight this campaign, to go and address each of the parliaments, put in submissions to all the parliamentary enquiries and lobby all the retired judges… we would be much more likely to be successful”.

Initially, Heilpern said he expected the campaign to be a short one, given all it was aiming to do was introduce the same laws on mainland Australia that exist in Tasmania and other countries around the world such as New Zealand, the UK, Canada and most of the US.

“Which is that if you are on a prescription for cannabis and you are not driving under the influence — that is impaired – then you have a defence to a charge of driving with a detectable level of drug in your system. And that defence is ‘I have a prescription, I’m using it in accordance with that prescription, go away and leave me alone’. 

“That is the law in Tasmania. That is the law in New South Wales with respect to other prescription drugs… it is only cannabis and it is infuriating. It’s a hangover from when cannabis was unlawful. That’s all it is. There’s no logic to this whatsoever.” 

Heilpern said he was not currently hopeful of progress in any state.

“Victoria had been our great hope for change”, but it hasn’t eventuated. South Australia has a bill. New South Wales has an upper house inquiry… but I don’t hold a lot of hope there. 

“One would’ve thought the ACT, given they’ve legalised the growing of plants, might create a medicinal cannabis exemption for their drug-driving laws, but alas no. 

“So this is where we’re at, with no change on any mainland state and murmurings from police in Tasmania that they want to conform with the mainland.”

Heilpern said the aim was to pick them off “state by state”, but that increasing access to medicinal cannabis through the pharmaceutical benefits scheme and the availability of low-dose CBD medicine over the counter would help drive awareness federally.

“That’s an important step… because you would see a flow of people, the numbers of people using medicinal cannabis would greatly increase.”

While acknowledging the work the Lambert Initiative has done in the field of drug-driving research, he insisted the evidence that “this is just a silly law” can be found in Tasmania. 

“What’s the point of putting $100 million into a company if the product cannot legally be used by 95% of the adult population?”

David Heilpern

“If this was going to be a really major problem, you would expect to see [it] in Tasmania. You would expect to see a massive increase in the road toll.

“There is no evidence that these laws have reduced the road toll. There is not one coronial finding throughout all of Australia that says a medicinal cannabis user was responsible for [any] deaths.” 

He said the real winners from maintaining the status quo were pharmaceutical companies, the alcohol industry and the police.

“If it was about road safety, it would apply to other prescription drugs,” he insisted. “So who wins from this? The pharmaceutical companies win because most people using medicinal cannabis are going to have been using pharmaceutical drugs to start with.

“And they’ll go back to them. Even though the evidence is that those drugs have a greater impact on their driving. 

“The alcohol industry wins because instead of having medicinal cannabis at night, people will have a couple of whiskies. 

“And the third people who gain are the police services themselves. The administration of 250,000 tests comes at a cost. It comes straight out of the road safety budget. That budget is meant for black spots, overtaking lanes. Instead, the police are paid from the road safety dollars to administer these tests.

“When I say to police ‘why are you doing this, why are you focusing on this non-road safety measure?’, the answer, of course, is the dollar sign.”

Prior to launching Cannabiz, Martin was co-founder and CEO of Asia-Pac’s leading B2B media and marketing information brand Mumbrella, overseeing its sale to Diversified Communications in 2017. A journalist...