Will new drug driving law reduce minimise harm?

By Nicholas Lay

Earlier this month the government chose to ignore the recommendations of its own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) regarding the legal status of the herbal stimulant khat, proposing instead that it be banned. Hot on the heels of this decision, the government has once again ignored evidence-based guidance, this time when drawing up its recently announced new drug driving laws. At the behest of the government, a panel of experts produced a report carefully calculating the threshold amounts of illegal and prescription drugs which would produce impairment comparable with the drink driving limit. It was published in March of this year. Despite the scientific rigour of the report (or because of it?), the government has chosen to disregard the thresholds advised for illegal drugs, instead opting for a ‘zero tolerance’ approach where the question of whether the driver is impaired is discounted.

Under these new laws, roadside tests and/or blood samples will see drivers prosecuted for drug driving if they are found to have any detectable amount of any one of eight specified illegal drugs (includingcannabisMDMA and cocaine) in their system, regardless of whether it is biologically possible that this amount is causing impairment. While the reduction of drug driving is of course a noble aim, and the law is in need of clarification in this area, this zero tolerance approach once again raises questions concerning the government’s attitude to evidence and reason. Then there is the issue of the policy itself, as it is debatable as to whether any benefits will outweigh the harms.

While the government has proposed that any trace of these eight illegal drugs that is enough to rule out passive consumption will warrant prosecution, it will adopt the limits recommended by the expert panel for eight controlled prescription drugs (including morphine, methadone and variousbenzodiazepines, such as diazepam). This inconsistency gives the impression that the effect of banned drugs on driving is a categorically darker threat than the effects of prescription drugs or alcohol. Of course in reality, someone just under the drink-drive limit, or indeed someone who is tired or has a headache will be more impaired than someone who took cannabis the day before. The official press release  lists the eight illegal drugs, but leaves the prescription drugs embedded in its report, perhaps suggesting the ‘zero tolerance’ rhetoric in relation to certain infamous illegal drugs is the factor of most importance in terms of posturing to the media.

The same can be said for the specific addition by the government of the hallucinogen LSD (acid) on the list of eight drugs. LSD was not even recommended for inclusion in the law in the experts’ report. Discouraging people from driving on LSD is a good thing, but its insertion into these laws appears to be unnecessary, even ridiculous. As the lead expert on the report, Dr Kim Wolff, points out; to date LSD has “not been detected in drivers apprehended for drug driving or involvement in road traffic collisions in this country”. Indeed, if LSD needs to be strictly controlled when it comes to drug driving, why did the government not include psilocybin (the main active ingredient in magic mushrooms) or the legal hallucinogen salvia, both of which have similarly dramatic effects, and are more popular and easier to obtain? Without any conceivable scientific justification, it seems likely that LSD was included solely because of its notoriety in comparison to the others, a gesture to the press.

The civil liberties implications of this law are serious. For good reasons, drug use itself is not illegal (actual crimes include possession and supply) so this law is worrying in the way it resembles a back door approach to the criminalisation of people for having drugs in their system. This new level of powers has the potential to cause harm without preventing greater harms. A young, sober driver pulled over by the police for a broken taillight could have no cannabis in their vehicle or on their person, but may have trace amounts in their system. Even if they have not been stoned for a day or two, they might be prosecuted, despite posing no driving-related threat to either themselves or other road users. On top of the yearlong ban, they will face all of the harms consistent with a drug conviction. These include a criminal record, a potential fine or even jail time, difficulty getting or keeping a job or a place at university and travel restrictions abroad, particularly to the United States.

The current, contrasting drink drive limit supports this theory of back door criminalisation. Under the current law, drink drive limits are in place which punish people for driving whilst impaired, rather than for their drug use itself. The expert panel presented thresholds based on extending this system, yet the government has deemed such a method to be inappropriate. Hypocritical is the only way to describe this action. If driving with illegal drugs in your system cannot be tolerated in the slightest, the same should apply to alcohol. After all, it causes far more injuries and deaths on the roads.

Quite simply, these new laws give the impression of an attempt by the government to appear tough on drugs and to crack down on drug users, rather than to merely curb drug driving, the actual issue at hand. The benefits of a law designed to deter drug driving and save lives could still be achieved without causing the unnecessary harms discussed above. Putting appropriate laws in place, i.e. the ones outlined in the government-commissioned report produced by a panel of experts, would do this. The government should be consistent with its laws rather than posturing as tough. Most importantly of all, it should take heed of the scientific evidence available to it. That way, everyone wins.