Victoria has taken the first steps towards eradicating contentious drug-driving laws which effectively ban users of medicinal cannabis from getting behind the wheel of a car.

The state government said it will establish an “implementation group” to explore new legislation that will treat medicinal cannabis like any other medicine.

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 Senate Inquiry earlier this year – which explored the barriers to patient access of medicinal cannabis – heard how detectable traces of THC can be found in the body one month after taking medicine.    

Victoria has stepped up its drug testing in recent years, with the number of drivers checked by police rising from 40,000 in 2015 to 150,000 in 2019

Other prescription medicines, including opiates, are not subject to the same stringent rules.

The move by the Victorian Government will initially see the formation of a taskforce overseen by the Department of Justice and Community Safety. It will consult with doctors, police and MPs and table a report by December 18.

It is hoped the re-think in Victoria will trigger other states to examine the current inequitable rules.

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.

It was cited as a major barrier to patient access during the Senate Inquiry, with a reform of the driving laws one of the recommendations drawn up by the Community Affairs References Committee.

The push in Victoria has been led politically by Reason Party leader Fiona Patten, who welcomed the development on Twitter.

“The average medicinal cannabis patient is a 55-year-old woman. These patients gain great relief from their medication but should be able to drive their kids to school in the morning,” Patten was quoted as saying.

She also told The Age: “Australia is the only jurisdiction that prevents medicinal cannabis patients from driving 24/7 and it is simply unfair. “Medicinal cannabis patients should be treated in the exact same way as any other patient who is prescribed a medication and should be allowed to drive if it is safe to do so.”

In its submission to the Senate Inquiry, the Lambert Initiative suggested a mandatory no-drive limit of four to six hours “would most likely suffice” after taking a THC-containing product.

“After all, many patients are on our roads with prescription drugs that are arguably much more impairing than cannabis,” the highly respected research centre said.

Earlier this year, Lismore magistrate David Heilpern quit the bench after saying he could no longer uphold such “grossly unfair” drug-driving laws in New South Wales.

David Heilpern
Former magistrate David Heilpern: grossly unfair law

Writing in Cannabiz, Heilpern said: “Throughout the thousands of cases I dealt with, the police were never able to allege that the person was showing any signs of affectation. They weren’t wobbling as they walked, they weren’t slurring their words, they didn’t have bloodshot eyes. Most, if not all, of the people who are prosecuted in NSW have a level of THC in their bodies that bears no connection to their ability to drive safely.”

He added: “Ultimately, these laws should be completely abolished. There is simply no justice in these laws and the way they’re applied, particularly for those who are using cannabis medicinally. They’re a waste of money, they’re a waste of police time, and they aren’t achieving any of their aims. It’s high time we got rid of them.”

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...