Industry leaders are urging regulators to address outdated and potentially ‘discriminatory’ driving laws, which leave cannabis patients at risk of prosecution.
A new report by the members of the Cannabis Industry Council has found that current driving legislation has not kept up to date with law changes regarding the medicinal use of cannabis in 2018.
According to the report, which was published on Thursday 8 June, cannabis patients who drive are being put at risk of losing their licence and facing criminalisation – even when they are holders of a legal prescription.
Cannabis is on the ‘zero tolerance’ list within the Road Traffic Act 1988 (RTA), meaning there is a legal limit of two micrograms per litre of blood. Under Section 5A of the RTA, which was introduced in 2015, any driver who is stopped by the police can expect to be swabbed and if THC is identified, a blood test is enough to secure a conviction.
However, the report notes that blood and saliva tests are ‘inconsistent markers for a driver’s impairment’, as THC can be detected in the blood for up to 30 days after consumption.
This is supported by a number of recent studies that have found these tests to be ineffective at measuring impairment, with one finding no relationship between blood THC concentrations and driving performance.
The method of consumption and how often the person consumes can also have an impact on the impairment of the individual.
Research generally suggests that the usual duration of neurocognitive impairment associated with the use of medical cannabis containing THC is generally two to four hours if the drug is vaped, and up to six hours if it is taken orally. Meanwhile tests are thought to be less effective on those who consume cannabis regularly.
Stigma, lack of awareness and increases in arrests
Analysis shows the number of arrests for driving under the influence of cannabis have increased by more than 72% between 2016/17 to 2020/21. A conviction may lead to a 12-months driving ban, an unlimited fine, up to six months in prison and a criminal record.
While patients who hold a prescription for cannabis should be protected in court by a statutory medical defence, many police officers on the ground are still unaware of the legality of medical cannabis.
There are numerous reports of cannabis patients having been stopped by police and had charges brought against them, in some cases even losing their licence.
“The uncertainty surrounding CBPMs [cannabis-based products for medicinal use] and driving, and the procedures the police adopt when they stop drivers, causes patients a significant amount of anxiety, to the point where some feel they can’t drive at all,” the report states.
“The implications of being drug tested and convicted, given a criminal record, fines, up to six months in prison and a driving disqualification are insurmountable. Even if, following a roadside arrest, further investigations lead to no charges being made, the unfair criminalisation has still taken place and the shame, embarrassment and stigma cannot be undone.”
Guy Coxall, founder of cannabis advocacy group, Seed Our Future, has successfully supported a number of patients dealing with driving offences, as well as reinvestigating cases where prosecutions were wrongly made.
“I work with these patients directly and have seen the amount of stress and anxiety it causes. It can make their symptoms worse,” Coxall, who collaborated on the CIC report, told Cannabis Health.
“Patients do have a statutory medical defence but that only comes into play once the case has gone to court. The police don’t care, they don’t know the law. Patients are put into a corner where they have to decide whether to consent to give a blood sample, which is an invasive procedure, and then can be placed in cells for hours.”
He continued: “It’s all down to a lack of awareness and education among the police forces. If the police understood the legality of medicinal cannabis, they could apply proportionality, as they do with opioids, benzodiazepines, sleeping tablets or any of the other list of drugs in the legislation, because they are prescribed by the NHS. With cannabis it all comes down to the stigma.”
Coxall is working with the CIC on developing an ‘evidence pack’ for clinics to disseminate to patients including information on their prescription and guidance for both the individual and the police on what to do should they find themselves in this situation.
“This will hopefully prevent it from going to arrest and any charges being made,” he added.
Key recommendations for cannabis driving laws
The CIC has also put forward a number of recommendations which it is calling on regulators, law enforcement and the cannabis industry to implement ‘urgently’.
These are as follows:
- Standardise medical cannabis and driving guidelines (Road Traffic Act 1988) to focus on impairment rather than the “illegal drugs, accidental exposure, zero tolerance” threshold limit.
- Continue to use the Field Impairment Test (FIT) as the method of identifying impairment, as THC concentration in blood and saliva are inconsistent markers.
- Standardise the driving warnings around impairment on medical cannabis product labelling.
- Review the consistency and effectiveness of communication to medical cannabis patients around their statutory rights, and put plans in place to improve it.
- Review the consistency and effectiveness of law enforcement training around the legalisation of medical cannabis and patients’ statutory rights and put plans in place to improve it.
- Review the consistency and effectiveness of safe driving communication to CBPM prescribers and put plans in place to improve it.
Report author, Frances Crewdson of Ananda Developments, commented: “It is highly concerning that vulnerable patients are being put at risk of losing their licence or even criminalisation due to outdated and contradictory legislation.
“The Cannabis Industry Council is calling on the Government to urgently review the anomalies within the Road Traffic Act to uphold the basic rights of medical cannabis patients.”
Chair of the CIC Standards Working Group Elisabetta Faenza added: “The current situation for medical cannabis patients who need to drive is a complete minefield. The Cannabis Industry Council will be working with industry partners to develop guidance and support for patients and prescribers.”
The report was developed by the CIC’s Standards Working Group, with notable contributions from Frances Crewdson, Guy Coxall (Seed our Future), Kirsty Morrison (Cancard), and Dr Callie Seaman (Aqualabs).
What do current guidelines say about medical cannabis and driving?
Last year the Department for Transport published a report on medical cannabis and road safety, in which it set out the guidelines.
The DVLA guidelines require patients to be ‘free from any medication effects that would impair driving’ as a condition for continuing to drive or resuming driving following medication. The elements required for safe driving include: attention and concentration, good reaction time, and coordination.
However, it is down to the individual driver to judge whether their ability to drive safely is impaired, as with any other prescribed medication.
UK law requires that drivers tell the DVLA about any medical condition that could potentially affect their driving. The only condition requiring mandatory notification for which a CBPM is commonly used is epilepsy. There is no requirement for patients to inform the DVLA of their prescription, unless related to epilepsy. However, some prescribers told researchers behind the report that they have advised patients to notify the DVLA of their prescriptions ‘to comply with the law’.
In line with DVLA guidelines, as with other medicines, prescribers of CBPMs should give their patients advice on driving, including informing them that they should not drive if they feel impaired.
There is no official guidance on the level of medical cannabis that can be taken before impairment will occur because this can vary, depending on many different factors. Prescribers should not advise on the legislation nor the limits.
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