The ACT looks set to be the first jurisdiction in the country to legalise recreational cannabis use, which will bring the capital territory into line with ten US states, as well as the entire nations of Canada and Uruguay.

ACT Labor MLA Michael Pettersson introduced the Personal Cannabis Use Bill that legalises the possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis and the home cultivation of up to four plants. This legislation is currently before a parliamentary inquiry, which will table its report by 6 June.

“The committee is undertaking it’s work diligently. And I’m confident that the bill has the in-principle support of a majority of MLAs,” Mr Pettersson told Sydney Criminal Lawyers on Tuesday. “I have watched the testimony so far and am confident we are able to legalise cannabis for personal use.”

The Labor backbencher added that “the inquiry has generated a lot of interest from the public and that’s reflected in the submissions”. And one of these, which is from the ACT Law Society, has raised the issue around cannabis legalisation and the unfair drug driving laws in Canberra.

The association that represents the local legal profession has pointed out that drug driving laws, as they stand in the ACT, aren’t justifiable when it comes to cannabis, as, just like in NSW, police aren’t testing for driver impairment, but rather they test for the mere presence of the drug.

Minute traces in saliva

Section 20 of the Road Transport (Alcohol and Drugs) Act 1977 (ACT) (the Act) provides that it’s an offence to drive with “a prescribed drug in a person’s oral fluid or blood”. Under the current regime, ACT police test drivers’ saliva for the presence of a drug, meaning minute traces can read positive.

The dictionary of the Act outlines that there are three prescribed drugs that police are testing for: MDMA, amphetamines and THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis. This is the same as what NSW police were doing until it added cocaine to its testing regime in July last year.

Section 19 of the Act stipulates that a driver has broken the law if they have a “prescribed concentration of alcohol” in their “blood or breath”. This relates to police randomly breath testing drivers for levels of alcohol in their blood scientifically proven to lead to impairment.

The four levels of prescribed alcohol concentration are set out in section 4E of the Act. Most licence holders are permitted to drive with level 1 – up to 0.05 – in their system. But, no individual can drive with the higher levels in their blood. And as the concentrations increase, so too do the penalties.

In its submission to the inquiry, the ACT Law Society put forth that “that drug driving laws should apply in circumstances where a person is impaired and/or intoxicated by cannabis”. And it further recommends that section 20 be amended to reflect this is the case for that drug.

The “harshest” in the land

The ACT Law Society further asserts that the territory has the “harshest drug driving penalties in Australia and that the penalties imposed for committing a drug driving offence are more punitive than those for drink driving”.

An example of this, the Society points out, is that a first time offender “with a small amount of cannabis in their system” – which doesn’t mean they’re impaired – is subject to the same maximum penalty – a fine of $1,500 – as a repeat level 2 drink driving offender.

Further, a first time offender caught with a level of cannabis in their system that may not mean they’re under the influence whatsoever, automatically has their licence disqualified for 3 years, which is the same penalty a first time level 4 drink driving offender receives.

“The penalties imposed for committing a drug driving offence are disproportionate because they do not account for levels of cannabis impairment and intoxication,” the authors of the submission made clear.

Not impaired, but charged

“In our view,” the Society continued, “the higher penalties for committing a drug driving offence may be justifiable in circumstances where a person is impaired and/or intoxicated due to consuming a ‘hard drug’… but not when a person drives with a low-level of cannabis in their body.”

There have been cases in the past where people have gone before the courts under extraordinarily suspect circumstances. A senior ACT public servant tested positive for THC after being pulled over on her motorbike back in 2013.

The woman risked losing her job and the strict national security clearance that came with it. She was eventually given a non-conviction order after spending nine months in court claiming the low levels of THC in her system resulted from some muesli she’d been eating that contained hemp seeds.

And then there was the 2016 NSW Joseph Carrall case. Lismore magistrate David Heilpern found that Carrall was not guilty of drug driving after he’d tested positive for THC in a roadside test, as the man hadn’t smoked any cannabis for nine days prior to testing on the advice of a police officer.

Calls from the AFP union

Australian Federal Police Association president Angela Smith told the ABC that the technology the police are using can only give a positive or negative reading. And if the technology “could be developed, drug driving should be treated with low and high range tiers similar to drink driving”.

And there’s good news in this regard, as this technology does exist. The police in Norway are currently utilising it. In that country, authorities have been testing drivers for impairment levels in regard to 20 licit and illicit non-alcohol drugs since February 2012.

This includes the three illicit substances that ACT policing are presently testing local drivers’ saliva for traces of, as well as a range of prescription benzodiazepines that have been shown to be present in the bloodstreams of more drivers who cause crashes in NSW than THC.

So, it seems that it’s high time for police in the ACT, and indeed, right around Australia, to invest in technology that can test for drug impairment levels. This would not only improve road safety, but it would also stop authorities using this backdoor method to punish the public for illegal drug use.