Medicinal cannabis users and advocates have refreshed calls to overhaul drug-driving laws in Victoria that effectively ban people who are legally prescribed the drug from getting behind a wheel.
Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise medicinal cannabis back in 2016. But it remains an offence for a person to drive with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabis’ psychoactive ingredient, in their system.
Users who rely on medicinal cannabis day-to-day, for pain relief or to treat symptoms of debilitating conditions, say it should be treated like other prescription medications in the context of driving.
Alice Davy, a 33-year-old mother of two, told Guardian Australia she takes cannabidiol, or CBD, during the day – and THC at night – to reduce a tremor caused by multiple sclerosis and to treat severe endometriosis pain.
“Before I was taking cannabis I was maxed out on every painkiller you could think of. I have no idea how I was able to function, to be honest, but it was totally legal to drive with all of that in my system,” she said.
Unlike other drugs, THC can remain detectable in a person’s blood or saliva long after the psychoactive effects wear off.
“By morning the effects of the cannabis have long abated [but] the patient may still have traces of THC in their saliva, and it may be detected in their blood for weeks,” GP and medicinal cannabis expert Dr Karen Hitchcock said.
“Many patients … take a risk, as the relief and increase in quality of life now that they are sleeping soundly are worth the risk of losing their licence.”
She added sleep deprivation also grossly impairs driving ability.
Advocates are now calling for a test to determine driving impairment, rather than a substance detection test, that can be reflected in legislation and enforced by police.
The Legalise Cannabis Party is pushing for an amendment to the Road Safety Act (1986) so that it is no longer an offence for a person to drive with THC in their system, so long as they have a prescription and are unimpaired.
“People who have been prescribed a medicine and can drive safely should be allowed to,” Legalise Cannabis Victoria MP David Ettershank said in a statement.
“This is how we treat every single prescription in Victoria except medicinal cannabis and it’s time for that to be corrected. Testing for the sheer presence of THC rather than impairment is ... [a] failure based on stigma rather than evidence.”
The calls have been heard by both sides of politics and the wheels are already turning on change for the 65,000 Victorians currently holding a medicinal cannabis prescription.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said last week it’s an issue that’s long bedevilled the government.
“We need to find a way through that,” he said.
“I don’t want [users] to feel they can’t access that care because we don’t have [updated] drug-driving laws and we don’t have a test that can test for impairment.”
The Victorian Labor Party has established a medicinal cannabis and safe driving working group and said reforming the laws was a “significant priority”.
Labor MP Harriet Shing said this involved finding a “distinction between presence [of THC] and impairment”.
“This work has been going on for a number of years now,” she said in parliament on Wednesday.
“The working group has actually discussed at length the complexities of this matter and the options and opportunities that might be available.”
Coalition MP Matt Bach also said it was his party’s belief that the current system was “unfair” and “inconsistent”.
“Motorists taking other prescribed drugs like antidepressants, perhaps opiates, even antihistamines, may be impaired for driving purposes, but these drugs are not tested by police,” he said in parliament.
Given the bipartisan support, advocates are hopeful change is in the air.
Aleksandra Bliszczyk is a Senior Reporter for VICE Australia. You can follow her on Instagram here, or on Twitter here.