Medical cannabis: cross-party committee says Australia needs new roadside impairment test

<span>Researchers have been calling for governments to address issues between medicinal cannabis use and existing laws, with Victoria announcing its medical cannabis driving trial will not conclude until late 2025.</span><span>Photograph: AAP</span>
Researchers have been calling for governments to address issues between medicinal cannabis use and existing laws, with Victoria announcing its medical cannabis driving trial will not conclude until late 2025.Photograph: AAP

Greens senator and medicinal cannabis user Peter Whish-Wilson said the federal government had a “duty” to fund research into drug driving impairment levels, as leaders grapple with how to balance existing laws with medicinal THC use.

The joint committee on law enforcement has looked at the “challenges and opportunities” in tackling the nation’s drug problem, identifying the mismatch between medicinal cannabis use and existing drug-driving laws as an issue needing to be addressed.

“The committee is of the view that cannabis impairment testing is an emerging opportunity for Australia to lead in its commitment to public safety,” the cross-party committee said in a report tabled in parliament this week.

“To this end the government should support research to develop a comprehensive roadside impairment test for cannabis.

“This would assist not only medicinal and cannabis users in jurisdictions where it is legal but also assist law enforcement to more effectively carry out their duty to keep the community safe.”

Related: Victoria’s ‘world-first’ medical cannabis driving trial to finish in late 2025, disappointing advocates

Whish-Wilson, who has been open about being on the medicinal cannabis scheme to treat debilitating side effects from the shingles virus, said given the scheme was a federal one, the government needed to help states grapple with the necessary law changes.

“It really is up to the federal government to show some leadership here and help co-ordinate the approach for a set of national standards,” he said.

“It’s needed urgently, there is no time to wait. The stigma associated with legal users of cannabis on the federal medicinal scheme has led to loss of licences, jobs and livelihoods.”

Whish-Wilson said jurisdictions like Washington and California in the United States had set a precedent in changing existing drug laws to ensure medicinal cannabis users were not discriminated against and Australia, through a national approach to state and territory law, could do the same.

Australian researchers have been calling for governments to address issues between medicinal cannabis use and existing laws, with questions over whether existing drug-driving laws can be relied upon as an accurate measure of driver impairment.

With medicinal cannabis becoming a more acceptable therapeutical treatment and cannabis now decriminalised to varying degrees in the ACT, the Northern Territory and South Australia, attention is turning to Australia’s existing driving laws and whether they are fit for purpose.

THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, can remain present in the body for long periods of time, without on-going impact.

While attempts have been made to address the emerging issues, it remains illegal in most states to have any trace of THC in a driver’s system, meaning medicinal cannabis users risk their licence when they get behind the wheel.

The former Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said in February 2023 that reforming drug-driving laws for medicinal users was a “priority” but the Allan government this week confirmed its medical cannabis driving trial would not conclude until late 2025.

Roadside saliva drug tests are used to detect THC, as well as methamphetamine and MDMA, to determine which drivers are subject to a further lab test to confirm the initial findings.

Current tests only confirm an illicit drug is present, not impairment effects, unlike roadside alcohol tests which measure the blood alcohol concentration.

The parliamentary committee notes that, as more states make moves towards decriminalising cannabis, “issues arising from a lack of impairment testing will likely increase”.

The committee only examined decriminalisation in relation to law enforcement challenges and the need for investment in health and education services to have the necessary resources to help treat people with addiction issues.

“If a jurisdiction decides to pursue decriminalisation, additional resources for the health and education responses are essential,” the committee found, adding that progression towards decriminalisation hadn’t come with increased investments in those jurisdictions.

The committee said the ACT’s move to decriminalisation of the possession of small amounts of drugs would “provide a useful case study” in the Australian environment and recommended the Australian Institute of Criminology analyse the impacts.

The committee, chaired by Tasmanian Labor senator Helen Polley, also contained members of the Coalition and the Greens.