With effect from Monday, 2nd March, 2015, it has become an offence to drive, attempt to drive or to be in charge of a vehicle on a road or other public place when there is a specified controlled drug in the body of the offender. The offence is committed if the proportion of the drug in the body exceeds the specified limit for that drug. For the first time the new law will penalise not just those with illicit drugs in the body but also those who have prescription drugs (above the specified limits) in the blood stream. The new offence will enable the police to charge many more drivers as there is no requirement to prove any impairment in the ability to drive under the new law.
The specified prescription drugs
The drugs specified include 8 prescription drugs namely
These drugs are widely prescribed for conditions such as insomnia, depression and anxiety, pain relief and other common conditions. However, an offence is not committed unless the level of the drug in the body exceeds the specified limit. There is a different limit for each drug. Parliament has set the limits so that those who are taking the drugs in accordance with the prescriptions given to them by their doctors will not normally exceed the specified limit. However, the government has also issued advice that if one is on high doses of such drugs it would be prudent to carry evidence, such as your prescription, with you to show the police should you be questioned. It should be noted that the law does provide a defence to those who have been prescribed a specified drug for medical or dental purposes even where the level of the drug exceeds the specified level so long as drug is taken in accordance with the directions of the doctor or supplier of the medicine and in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidance. However, this defence is not allowed if guidance not to drive within a certain period of taking the drug has not been followed. (Please note that this defence is only available to the new law; it is not a defence to the previous and existing law which prohibited driving whilst unfit to do so through drink or drugs.
The specified illicit drugs
The law also penalises those who have any one of eight illicit drugs in the body. The drugs specified include
- MDMA (ecstasy)
Again different levels are specified for each drug above. Parliament has set very low, trace levels for these drugs so that anyone found with them in the body will be committing an offence. Those who take such drugs should be alert to the possibility that drug traces could, potentially, remain in the body long after the drugs have been ingested and after any obvious intoxicating effects have disappeared.
Drug Driving is punishable with up to 6 months prison, a minimum one year driving disqualification and an unlimited fine. The offences are summary only and can be tried only in the Magistrates’ Courts. The existing law of unfitness to drive through drink or drugs remains on the statute book. Therefore, anyone who drives with any intoxicant in the body, whether drink or drugs, which renders that person unfit to drive also commits an offence. Intoxicants can include prohibited drugs, prescribed drugs and over the counter medicines. Drink driving, drug driving and driving whilst unfit to drive through drink or drugs are all subject to the same penalties.
The government’s message is summed up by the then Road Safety Minister Robert Goodwill who said:
“This new law will save lives. We know driving under the influence of drugs is extremely dangerous; it devastates families and ruins lives.’’
“The Government’s message is clear – if you take drugs and drive, you are endangering yourself and others and you risk losing your licence and a conviction.”
Please feel free to contact me for advice should you face prosecution for a drink or drug drive allegation.
(NB the law set out above is correct at the time of writing)
Sunil Rupasinha (specialist road traffic offence barrister)