Drug Driving

Drug driving legislation has recently experienced it’s biggest ever overhaul. In March 2015, the new offence of drug driving came into effect, and police have already seen increased arrests under the new guidelines and law.

Before the overhaul, drug driving was an offence under Section 5A of the Road Traffic Act, which states that it is illegal to operate a vehicle whilst being “unfit” to do so. This law required a degree of interpretation, so the new offence was made in an attempt to clarify the law, introducing legal limits on prescription drugs and illegal drugs.

The offence of drug driving is now much more similar in protocol to drink driving charges, and the penalties are just as severe.

The Law

The Law states that it is illegal to operate a mechanically propelled vehicle whilst an individual is impaired by drugs or alcohol.

The new offence, effective as of March 2015, introduced clear definitions of impairment in the form of exact thresholds for drug concentrations allowable per litre of blood. These thresholds exist for both prescription and illegal drugs. Evidence of physical impairment by a Police officer is not required any longer as the impairment is assumed by the actual measurement of drugs found in the system.

For illegal drugs, the allowable concentrations are very low, but allow for a degree of ‘accidental exposure’, e.g. where passive smoking may develop a presence in the blood stream.

As for prescription drugs, these have higher allowable concentrations, but these thresholds can be ignored if a doctor has provided confirmation that an individual is fit to drive whilst taking the prescribed medication.

Drug Limits

The new offence introduced thresholds for 8 legal drugs (all available under prescription) and 8 illegal drugs. This list will expand and include more drugs as time progresses, and there are already plans to include drugs included in medication for ADHD and Parkinson’s disease.

The following drugs are available under prescription, and have fairly high concentration allowances, but it is legal to drive whilst above the thresholds in a doctor has deemed you fit enough to drive.

µg/L = microgrammes per litre of blood

  • Morphine – 80 µg/L
  • Lorazepam – 100 µg/L
  • Diazepam – 550 µg/L
  • Oxazepam – 300 µg/L
  • Clonazepam – 50 µg/L
  • Temazepam – 1,000 µg/L
  • Flunitrazepam – 300 µg/L
  • Methadone – 500 µg/L

The following substances are illegal, and have much lower concentration thresholds, although they take into account the possibility of accidental exposure:

  • Cannabis – 2 µg/L
  • Cocaine – 10 µg/L
  • Ecstasy (MDMA) – 10 µg/L
  • Heroin – 5 µg/L
  • Ketamine – 10 µg/L
  • LSD – 1 µg/L
  • Methylamphetamine – 10 µg/L

Unlike alcohol consumption, there is no ‘unit’ system to help consumers measure the amount of drugs in their system. This is partly because there are too many factors that could affect the rate of metabolism, including the physical size of an individual.

Drug Driving Procedure

Drug driving as an offence is more clearly defined than ever before, now roadside procedures and testing are similar to the processes of drink driving.

Swab tests are simple tests that swab saliva in the mouth to detect the presence of cocaine or cannabis. However, these tests do not serve as an accurate measurement against the new legal thresholds, and a positive test will almost always be followed be a blood/urine test to get more accurate measurements that can be relied upon in court.

Field Impairment Tests (FITs) are still often used at the roadside to check for impairments that would affect an individual’s ability to drive. These tests can include a simply finger-to-nose test to assess judgement and coordination, or include pupillary tests to check for evidence of drug taking through symptoms affecting the individual’s eyes.

It is a criminal offence to refuse a test without reasonable excuse. If a police officer suspects that you are unfit to drive, you will be arrested and taken to an appropriate Police Station to provide blood and/or urine samples. These samples will then be reviewed by toxicologists to gain more accurate readings, and this evidence may well be utilised in any court proceedings.

Possible Penalties

Prior to the new offence being introduced, the prosecution in a Court Trial would need to prove that the defendant was actually unfit to drive because of their drug use. This would have required interpretation, and evidence from a police officer or doctor showing that impairment existed, as the term ‘unfit’ does not provide a clear definition of an unacceptable amount of drugs, so this would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

The new offence has removed the need for interpretation of when someone was ‘unfit’, as the new thresholds offer Jurors and Magistrates clear indications of acceptable drug usage levels for drivers. For illegal drugs, legal levels are very low, especially for Cannabis and LSD.

The Police will be required to exhibit evidence of bad driving, as this can be used to evidence aggravating features. The types of bad driving that may be looked at can include everything from swerving on straight roads to showing signs of mental confusion once stopped. Evidence from FITs tests are likely to be utilised in the prosecution case.

The penalties for drug driving are harsh, and act as a deterrent for other road users. The possible penalties if you are found ‘Guilty’ are:

  • A minimum of a 12 month driving ban
  • Potentially unlimited fines
  • Up to 6 months imprisonment
  • Criminal record & employers may have to be notified, if you are required to drive for work

What should you do?

The new drug driving offences have increased the number of arrests for these offences, and penalties are purposefully incredibly harsh to act as a deterrent for other drivers. However, even with the clarified laws, there are often effective lines of defence or helpful points of mitigation which can lessen the punishment considered. It’s vital that you get expert advice and assistance from an expert motoring offence solicitor. Lawtons are experienced motoring offence solicitors based in London & the Home Counties. Make an enquiry here.

Nb. This guide is intended to give general information only and not intended to be used as the basis upon which Advice is given nor should it be relied upon as giving advice specific to a case or individual and Lawtons do not accept liability for anyone using this guide. Should you require specific advice in connection with a real case or situation, please contact us immediately so that we can provide specific Advice