Australia has a long, complex, and, if you are a patient who depends on it, infuriating relationship with cannabis.
Once one of the most popular crops in the country, with settlers required to grow it for its textile uses, cannabis now sits in a bit of a legal grey area across the states and territories. In some places, like Queensland, getting caught with even a small personal quantity of the stuff can land you in jail. In other more progressive places, like the ACT, growing and partaking of your own crop is perfectly within your legal rights.
Medicinal cannabis has been legal in this country since 2016 however the legislative framework to support its use is complicated and inconsistent. Currently, there are more than 180,000 patients using medicinal cannabis to treat a broad range of conditions from chronic pain to depression and anxiety. As the medication ramps up in popularity, with more than 10,000 new patients being prescribed each month, more and more people are running into legal complications with use.
Specifically, the laws around driving with cannabis in your system do not make an exemption for medicinal cannabis patients, despite this being a prescribed drug granted by a medical practitioner.
This means that in all states and territories except Tasmania, testing positive for cannabis at a mobile drug testing stop will incur serious penalties, even if you have a medical reason to be using it. Clearly, this is an issue and one that Greens MP Cate Faehrmann wants to change.
She has submitted a private members bill to NSW State Parliament to grant medical exemption for cannabis patients for drug driving charges.
I've just introduced my Road Transport Amendment (Medicinal Cannabis – Exemptions from Offences) Bill 2021 which would grant a medical exemption to medicinal cannabis patients from drug driving charges. #nswpol #RDT #cannabis pic.twitter.com/yqXEqBtCYu
— Cate Faehrmann 🌏🐨 (@greencate) November 17, 2021
Speaking to The Latch, Faehrmann said that, “These legislative changes should have been made when medicinal cannabis was legalised in 2016.”
“A drug driving charge can have many serious impacts on a person’s life. A loss of license often leads to a loss of work, housing and a breakdown in relationships”.
In NSW, the state with the second-highest number of medicinal cannabis users and the harshest drug-driving penalties, testing positive will result in an immediate three-month suspension of license as well as a maximum fine of $2,000.
“The NSW Roadside Drug Testing Regime forces patients to choose between living in fear of losing their license or giving up what is often the only medicine they’ve found effective for their pain or condition,” Faehrmann said.
“The tests used by NSW Police are incredibly sensitive. People can test positive 24 hours or more after they have consumed cannabis but research shows impairment does not last longer than 4 to 10 hours. This means people are testing positive and being charged with a drug driving offense even though they are completely safe to drive”.
Testing positive for cannabis does not necessarily indicate that a person is driving while impaired. Mobile drug tests measure the mere presence of a drug in a person’s system, not the quantity. Since cannabis can hang around in your system for months, depending on the type of test used, medicinal cannabis patients are effectively banned from driving or otherwise run the risk of harsh legal sanctions. This is particularly problematic for patients in rural areas, where public transport is limited and driving is generally the only option.
As it stands, the current roadside drug tests are a bit like having a roadside breath test disqualifying you from driving for having had a beer over a week ago. This discrepancy is something Faehrmann said is “indefensible.”
“Medicinal cannabis has been life-changing for so thousands of Australians. For many people, it’s the only medicine that has proven to be effective to reduce pain or treat their condition and even more importantly do so without the dangerous side effects of some other pain killers,” she said.
“There is already a medical defense for morphine patients. It is therefore indefensible that the Government has not extended the same defense to medicinal cannabis which is far safer for patients and far less likely to impair a driver”.
The bill, which has been read in the legislative council, will be brought for debate to parliament early next year and Faehrmann encourages everyone to contact their local member and voice their support for medicinal cannabis users.
Similar bills in the past have failed to achieve parliamentary approval but, with medicinal cannabis users growing in Australia, Faehrmann believes that “it is inevitable that a medical defense will be introduced for medicinal cannabis patients” to address “the ineffectiveness and inaccuracy of the roadside drug testing regime.”
“The reality is that these are medical patients who are taking a legally prescribed drug and have followed the directions of their doctor to avoid driving while impaired. They do not deserve to be lumped with a drug driving charge,” she said.