The leader of the Reason Party and cannabis advocate Fiona Patten has described how she “wore down” state authorities in her battle to end the discriminatory drug-driving laws in Victoria.
But she warned the road to reform could still be “rocky” and stressed the police should not be allowed to dictate state laws.
In an interview with Cannabiz, the politician also spoke of her hope that Victoria could be the catalyst for a nationwide move to ensure medicinal cannabis patients are treated the same as anyone else taking prescription drugs.
Under current Australia-wide drug-driving 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.
Earlier this month, Victoria’s Labor Government took the first step to reform by establishing an “implementation group” to consult with doctors, police and road safety experts. A report is expected on December 18.
Patten took up the drug-driving crusade as part of her wider call to legalise and regulate cannabis, and to treat the drug as a health, rather than a criminal, issue.
She said the encouraging progress was the culmination of years of lobbying.
“This is not the first time I put up this legislation. It’s sort of fourth time lucky,” she told Cannabiz. “But we constantly got patted on the head by the Government saying, ‘yes Fiona, we’ll do this’.
“This medicine should be treated exactly the same as all other medicines, and no-one was really disputing that. It’s just that Australia… has random roadside drug testing, and that’s where the difficulty lay. But it still could have been treated as a medicine. And it’s been incredibly frustrating. It defied logic.”
“I’m probably on my third minister of roads, arguing this case and every time they sort of go, ‘well, yeah, that doesn’t make sense, why don’t we treat it the same?’ The problem is the police.”
So after five years of being rebuffed, what triggered the Victorian Government’s decision to finally take steps towards reform?
“I think we’ve kind of worn them down,” Patten said. “And, you know, we’ve gone through a lot in Victoria. There’s been difficult legislation that’s gone through and the Government has been asking a lot of cross benchers to support them and to trust them.
“For me, as we’re coming out of Covid, to make a modest ask of the Government to trust us and to trust medicinal cannabis users and to trust doctors, I think it was hard for them to say no this time.”
Patten said she was hopeful that by early 2021 the current laws may change through regulation, rather than legislation.
“It could even be that the police just agree that anyone with a medicinal cannabis prescription will not be charged,” she added. “There’s some really simple workarounds and that’s what this implementation group will work through and come to a final decision that is supported by all the people at the table, those being health professionals, the road safety professionals and the police.”
Nevertheless, the path to reform is unlikely to be plain sailing, admitted Patten, with the police understood to have concerns. That being the case, won’t reform be hard to push through?
“I think what this implementation group is going to do is allay the fears of the police, to say people who have got prescriptions for medicinal cannabis are not 20-year-old kids who’ve gone to get a prescription for medicinal cannabis so they can bong on in the morning,” Patten said. “That’s not the picture and the road safety department gets that.
“I think this very short, sharp working group will increase the understanding about who a medicinal cannabis patient is.”
In addition, it’s important to understand that police uphold the laws, they don’t make them, Patten said.
“As I was pointing out to one senior minister, you’re the boss of the police, the police aren’t the boss of you. The police are there to uphold the law. They don’t make the law, parliament makes the law.
“The police can kind of say ‘we don’t like it’, but at the end of the day we’ve brought them into the group. We’ve brought them into the tent to say, ‘we want to work with you, and we want you to understand this’. But the decision by government is that we’re going to do this.
“Now I have no doubt it’s going to be rocky. Look, I’d love to be wrong, but I suspect it’s not going to be a completely smooth, beautiful line and that come January 1 medicinal cannabis patients, as long as they’re not impaired, will be legally able to drive.
“But I’m more optimistic than I have ever been. And I think we’ve got the weight of government saying that this must happen.
“There will be barriers put up and there will be arguments put forward. But I think we’ve jumped a lot of those hurdles now.
“We’ve got ministers with a much greater understanding of medicinal cannabis, a much greater understanding of who the patient is and a much greater understanding that it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is impaired because they’ve taken medicinal cannabis.
“Nobody wants people to drive unsafely. Nobody wants people to be driving when they’re impaired. But to argue that someone who takes high CBD, low THC cannabis oil sublingually before they go to bed will be impaired the next day is ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, Patten told Cannabiz she has been “disappointed” with the slow growth of the industry, arguing it has been handcuffed by overbearing legislation.
“The licensing and regulation for this industry is extraordinary, it’s over-regulated,” she said. “I just had a message from someone who was investing considerably into the industry, and she has just found out that her licence to operate has been knocked back on some of the most spurious reasons you could ever imagine.
“I have no doubt she could have got an opium poppy licence and would have been able to grow opium, but not medicinal cannabis.
“The Government has not been our friend. We’re making access very difficult. Australians believe that medicinal cannabis can help and they’re not frightened of it, and they do want access to it. It’s really government regulation that prevents that from happening.”