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Australia’s THC Driving Limits Could Put Brakes on Patients

July 3, 2017
(zetter/iStock)
After Australia’s federal government unexpectedly enacted laws to allow limited access to medical cannabis, regulators and other officials have been scrambling to keep up.
The Office of Drug Control, which was set up to oversee medical cannabis, created onerous and expensive security requirements for growing it. State governments, under pressure from patient advocacy groups, and recognizing the commercial advantages of a cannabis industry, have now started to revise their approach to cannabis laws. But there is still a gap in the legislative framework: driving while using medical cannabis.

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In the state of South Australia, where parliament is debating new laws to increase penalties for driving while under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, Police Minister Peter Malinauskas confirmed that roadside drug tests will screen for THC, adding that the responsibility is on patients to “ensure that the THC is no longer present in their system prior to driving.”

“The offence applies regardless of the source of the THC, or the reason that the cannabis or cannabis products that contain the THC may have been consumed or used.”

Alistair Adams-Smith, TITLE

Given how long THC can be detectable saliva, blood, or urine, that could mean waiting days or even weeks before driving—long after the drug’s impairing effects have faded. The major problem with this approach to medical cannabis is that it doesn’t take into consideration patient-specific dosages, individual variation, or actual impairment of drivers. Malinauskas’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment

Other Australian states appear to be adopting a similarly severe stance. Alistair Adams-Smith, senior public affairs adviser on road safety for the New South Wales state government, told Leafly that “Under the Road Transport Act 2013, it is illegal to drive with delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol specifically, also known as THC, present in saliva, blood or urine.”

“The offence applies regardless of the source of the THC, or the reason that the cannabis or cannabis products that contain the THC may have been consumed or used,” Adams-Smith added. He was clear that other cannabinoids, such as CBD, aren’t a concern, and confirmed that when it comes to detecting THC, there can be significant variation in how long it remains in a patient’s system.

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“Detection timeframes for a roadside [mobile drug testing] saliva test depend on the drug or drugs taken, the dosage, and the potency of the drug,” he said. “Individuals vary, and heavy or excessive drug use, or use in combination with other drugs may extend the effects.”

In Canada, where approximately 170,000 people are legally authorized to use medicinal cannabis, the Parliament is considering a new law to address driving under the influence of cannabis. A new report from Canadian advocacy group Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana suggests that the country is at risk of getting it wrong by conflating medical cannabis use with nonmedical adult use and losing sight of the most important factor: actual impairment.

“Patients who use cannabis responsibly and are not impaired should still be able to drive without risk or fear of being charge,” said Jonathan Zaid, executive director of CFAMM. “While a strict precautionary approach may be appropriate in light of limited evidence, policymakers have a responsibility to both safeguard road safety and balance the rights of medical cannabis patients to ensure they are not unfairly criminalized by drugged driving laws that do not target impairment.”

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In the United States, where more and more states are legalizing cannabis, one study suggested that the effect on road safety could actually be positive, with an average reduction in road deaths of 11%. A competing study, however, suggests that nonlethal car accidents have risen slightly.

  • Turner Kayston

    The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition’s website has a good report, with references from different countries. It’s an informative read – regardless what country you’re from, or at least I thought so.

    It’s under publications, “Cannabis Use and Driving: Evidence Review” in PDF, which I don’t think I can directly link to here.

    There’s also the The Journal of Drug Policy and Practice – Volume 10, issue 3 – fall 2016:
    Why a 5 ng/ml THC Limit is Bad Public Policy – and the Case for Tandem per se DUID Legislation

    Good or bad, both have good info and references within.

    It’s disturbing seeing idiotic governments demonizing a less dangerous inebriating substance, when compared with more serious (recreational only) “drugs”, such as alcohol. Keep in mind, many over and under the counter drugs are also psychoactive – with only a warning of “do not operate heavy machinery”.

  • Lets be real here; this is a veiled attempt to wrest medical marijuana away from law abiding citizens! Smoke cannabis? Yes? Well then don’t drive….ever!

  • Then,…Lets not allow any prescriptions drugs and non prescription drugs in anybody who drives and to include caffeine products. Oops, Nicotine Oops again and aspirin , acetaminophen etc etc , just blanket all mind and body altering substances.

  • lovingc

    The Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk report, produced by the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that while drunken driving dramatically increased the risk of getting into an accident, there was no evidence that using marijuana heightened that risk. In fact, after adjusting for age, gender, race and alcohol use, the report found that stoned drivers were no more likely to crash than drivers who were not intoxicated at all.
    No per se law will work on this. There is no correlation to the amount of THC in your system and impairment. These laws need to be resisted otherwise you will negate any legality for cannabis in your country.

  • Ima Straight

    The “impairment” needs to be absolutely quantified and proven, instead of these silly assumptions by pissed off prohibitionists.

    Japan has had an impairment (reaction time, judgement, vision) test for their public transport pilots/drivers/engineers for a long time. That test is designed to catch actual impairment: from sleep loss, mood swings, pending infections, medication, whatever! Their impressive safety record recommends this standard.

    Governing bodies need to be sued to provide evidence that their random laws have a basis in fact, not prejudice. They ought to pass laws about how much sleep a driver gets, and so on, if those are their intents-to protect the public from impaired driving.

    I may have evidence of past cheesecake consumption on my butt, but that doesn’t mean that I’m still full of or affected by the cheesecake.