"A medicinal cannabis patient should be treated like any other patient who is prescribed medicine by a doctor who also provides appropriate advice about when that patient is safe to drive."
In a groundbreaking move, Victoria is set to introduce a closed-circuit trial that will allow medicinal cannabis users to get behind the wheel and assess the impact of the drug on their driving abilities.
The initiative comes as a part of new legislation presented to the Victorian parliament, marking a significant step toward understanding the effects of cannabis on driving.
Victoria made history back in 2016 by becoming the first state in Australia to approve the use of medicinal cannabis. However, driving with any trace of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis, in one's system remains a punishable offence in the state.
Notably, THC can linger in a driver's system for long periods, even after the initial effects have worn off. The only exception to this rule is Tasmania, which offers a medical defence for those driving with THC in their body fluids.
The Transport Legislation Amendment Bill 2023, introduced to parliament on Tuesday, is poised to change this status quo and will enable medicinal cannabis users to participate in a closed-circuit trial, supervised by the state government.
The government is expected to collaborate with an independent research organization, yet to be named, to develop and execute the trial. This undertaking will receive support from the Department of Transport and Planning, along with input from road safety experts and healthcare professionals.
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Crucially, the trial will be conducted in a controlled-driving environment, which will be physically separated from public roads, ensuring the safety of all participants.
For several years, users of medicinal cannabis have raised concerns about the current laws in Victoria, which put them at risk of losing their driver's license or facing fines each time they drive to work or drop off their children at school.
In 2021, the parliament's Medicinal Cannabis and Safe Driving Working Group engaged three universities to conduct additional research on this issue. Unfortunately, progress was hampered by the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February, then-Premier Daniel Andrews highlighted the government's commitment to reforming the existing law to address this issue.
Road Safety Minister Melissa Horne pointed out that the number of patients prescribed with medicinal cannabis in Victoria has surged by more than 700% over the past two years. She noted that many individuals with specific health conditions increasingly view medicinal cannabis as a therapeutic option that doesn't impair their ability to drive safely.
However, Horne acknowledged that "significant gaps" persist in our understanding of THC's potential impairment for different drivers and the relationship between THC concentrations from medicinal cannabis and road safety risks.
"This bill will allow us to deliver a world-leading research trial into medicinal cannabis and driving, enhancing our understanding of how medicinal cannabis affects driving behaviour and informing future reform," Horne stated.
To ensure transparency and diligence, a steering committee involving road safety partners will be established to monitor the trial, after which all collected data and evidence will be thoroughly assessed before any future recommendations are made.
While this trial is a welcome step forward, some members of the Upper House, including Rachel Payne and David Ettershank from the Legalise Cannabis party, have been advocating for even more significant changes to the law. They propose that it should no longer be an offence for an unimpaired driver to have detectable THC in their blood or oral fluid, provided they have a prescription and have taken their medication in accordance with that prescription.
While Payne and Ettershank are supportive of the trial, they express concerns that it may take too long.
"A medicinal cannabis patient should be treated like any other patient who is prescribed medicine by a doctor who also provides appropriate advice about when that patient is safe to drive,” Payne said.