Guest article by Motoring lawyer Alison Ashworth
The news has been rife over the implementation of the new drug driving law which came into force on 2nd March 2015. Under the new law it is an offence to drive with certain substances in your system above prescribed limits, regardless of whether your manner of driving is affected. The new law covers a number of prescribed medication along with illegal substances. There is a statutory medical defence available where a person has taken a medicine in accordance with prescribing instructions. Users of illegal drugs face detection of cocaine and cannabis at the roadside via the roadside drugalizer.
I have received a significant number of calls from worried member of the public who want to know, in practical terms, how this new law will affect them. This blog addresses some of the more common concerns which have been raised:
What will happen if I am suspected of being over the specified limit?
At this early stage, the initial roadside procedure will depend on whereabouts in the Country a person has been pulled over by the police. A roadside drug testing device has been ‘type approved’, however certain forces have chosen to delay their use of it.
For the forces which are yet to adopt the drugaliser device, field impairment tests will continue to be used. These include standing on one leg, touching the nose and balancing. Failing this test will result in a person being taken to the police station and asked to provide an evidential sample of either blood or urine.
For the forces which are using the drugaliser device, a saliva swab will be taken at the roadside, which will test for the presence of cocaine and cannabis. A positive result will enable the police to take the person to the police station to give an evidential sample or either blood or urine.
The person may or may not be held in the cells for a number of hours. The person would then be bailed pending the analysis of their sample at a laboratory. If the result of a sample shows the presence of a drug over the specified limit, the person would then be charged and bailed to attend Court.
The motorist would be expected to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty at their Court date.
Pleading guilty will lead to a minimum twelve month disqualification from driving, a fine of up to £5000 and possibly up to 6 months imprisonment.
Entering a not guilty plea would result in a trial date being listed. In most cases, the motorist would be permitted to continue driving throughout the adjournment period.
There are a number of grounds on which a person would plead not guilty to this charge. Numerous issues are known to affect the reliability of the evidence obtained by the police and could result in an inaccurate representation of the amount of substance in a person’s blood. There are also countless procedural irregularities which could also result in a not guilty verdict at trial.
The following limits have been set per litre of blood for the prescription medications covered by the offence:
- Clonazepam 50
- Diazepam 550
- Flunitrazepam 300
- Lorazepam 100
- Methadone 500
- Morphine 80
- Oxazepam 300
- Temazepam 1000
Understandably, this begs the question, “would my prescription put me over the limit?”. In reality, most users of the above medication would be under the specified limits, since the limits for legal substances have been set within or above normal therapeutic doses. Anyone who is found to be over the specified limit would have a medical defence, if they were taking medication which had been prescribed to them, and they had taken it in accordance with prescribing instructions and guidance.
I would however add a few words of caution;
- If a motorist finds themselves regularly requesting their medication before it is due, they should reconsider whether they are taking it in accordance with original prescribing instructions.
- Double check any restrictions regarding any recommended delay between taking the medication and driving.
- Seek medical advice before supplementing any medication with over the counter medicines. A person who uses morphine patches and then obtains over the counter codeine could find themselves over the limit once the drug metabolises.
- If there is a possibility that a person may have taken their medication other than in accordance with prescribing instructions they should wait a significant period of time before driving.
- Seek written prescribing instructions from a GP to confirm the dose and frequency of medication. This should be retained, along with a copy of the prescription when driving to speed up investigations into any medical defence.
- Do not drive if impaired in any way. A person could still be prosecuted for driving whilst impaired through drugs regardless of the amount and type of substance taken
Nevertheless in my opinion, and based on my experience in defending motorists, it seems the Prosecution would be hard pressed to disprove any medical defence advanced by a motorist in light of the complexities surrounding metabolic rates and the differing abilities of bodies to eliminate substances. .
The limits for illegal drugs have been set extremely low, at such a level to allow only traces of a drug in someone’s system (to allow leeway for accidental consumption, for example passive smoking of cannabis). An overwhelming proportion of motorists have contacted me to seek guidance regarding the length of time that a drug, such as cannabis will stay in a person’s system. The answer is not easy. Drugs typically remain in a person’s system for much longer than alcohol. Therefore the “morning after” issue becomes a significant factor for those who smoke cannabis in the privacy of their own home with the intention of “sleeping it off” before driving the next day. It is extremely difficult to say with any certainty how long a person would need to wait in order to pass the thresholds of the drug testing equipment. Too much depends on external factors such as height, weight, and the quantity and strength of the substance taken. As with drink driving, the absence of the need for the Prosecution to prove any impairment makes it extremely difficult for a person who has used illegal drugs to assess whether they would be over or under the specified limit when they could feel completely fine.
The impact of the new drug driving law on the everyday motorist
It is likely that in certain situations, such as following an accident for example, the police will more frequently test for the presence of drugs in a person’s system.
Unless a person has taken an illegal substance, or is abusing prescription medication, most people need not be concerned about this new law.
Anyone who remains concerned about the impact of this new law or would like to discuss any motoring offence should contact our 24 hour helpline on 0333 323 1830 to speak to specialist motoring lawyer for free initial advice.
Article by Expert Motoring Lawyer, Alison Ashworth; Head of Motoring Law at Forster Dean Solicitors.