More research on the impairing effects of THC on driving is vital if medicinal cannabis patients in New South Wales are to be exempt from prosecution should they fail a roadside test, an inquiry has concluded.

The Standing Committee on Law and Justice recommended further studies be conducted after examining the merits of a private members’ bill calling for reform.

The Road Transport Amendment Bill 2021 seeks to change existing laws which criminalise motorists found with THC in their system, even if no impairment is detected.

Under the bill, drivers who are not impaired, and can prove they have a legitimate prescription and are taking cannabis in accordance with a doctor’s instruction, should be exempt from prosecution.     

While acknowledging the existing laws have a “negative impact” on medicinal cannabis users – patients are forced to either curtail their treatment or risk arrest and prosecution if they need to drive – the committee “elected not to take a position on the bill”.

Instead, it recommended the issue “proceed to debate in the Legislative Council, and that the concerns identified by stakeholders….inform the debate”.

After hearing from a number of experts, including the Lambert Initiative, the report made clear that further research into the impairment effects of THC was needed if reform was to follow.

“Balancing the significant public interest inherent in road safety, it appears to the committee that a better understanding of the impairing effects of medicinal cannabis products that contain THC is a fundamental and necessary precursor to law reform in this area,” the report said. “Without this information, it appears to the committee that any risks to road safety cannot be properly evaluated or mitigated.

“The committee accepts that the current laws are having a negative impact on some medicinal cannabis users and for this reason, encourages the NSW Government to partner with experts and academics in the field to develop the evidence base necessary to resolve the current uncertainty and minimise the negative impact.”

The committee also acknowledged the key concerns that the current laws “operates unfairly in numerous ways”.

“It presumes impairment in the presence of THC, it conflates medicinal and recreational cannabis use, and it imposes harsh penalties on those who benefit from or are only able to access treatment with medicinal cannabis products that contain THC.

“The committee encourages further debate on this issue to include detailed consideration of approaches taken worldwide, noting that the Tasmanian experience may be instructive.

Cannabiz has approached lobby group Drive Change for comment.

During the hearing, Transport for NSW head of transport safety, security and emergency management, Peter Dunphy, said the current testing regime was necessary.

“Until there is clear evidence on the effects of medicinal cannabis on driving, the New South Wales Government will continue to take a cautious approach to changing policies and consider the safety of all road users,” he said.

“We would certainly appreciate and welcome further research in this area, to better understand the impacts and also to better target our approaches in terms of prevention and also the enforcement approaches.”

According to government figures, 5,388 penalty notices were issued in 2020/21 and 4,561 court attendances issued to drivers for driving with the presence of THC.

Steve has reported for a number of consumer and B2B titles over a journalism career spanning more than three decades. He is a regulator contributor to health journal, The Medical Republic, writing on...

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