Anti-drug driving laws: taking the ‘high’ out of highway

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The UK’s anti-drug driving laws were updated in 2015 to encompass the illegal use of certain prescription medications, as well as illegal drugs. This means it’s an offence to drive with specific legal or illegal drugs in your body if it impairs your ability to drive.

There’s an important distinction between how this legislation views the use of prescription medication. If you’ve been prescribed one of eight controlled drugs and you take your medicine as advised, and it doesn’t affect your driving, you are not breaking the law.

However, someone who takes these medications illegally – without a prescription – and drives with over a certain limit of the drug in their blood risks being prosecuted under anti-drug driving laws.

Taking your medicine

Road safety campaigners welcomed the introduction of limits on prescription medicines. Ed Morrow at road safety charity Brake said in 2015: "Many prescription medications can have a negative effect on your ability to drive safely, and there is a worrying lack of awareness of this among the public."

However, there are fears that some people could be caught out – even though they are just taking medication prescribed by their doctor.

Which drugs and medicines are involved?

The drug-driving legislation includes a zero-tolerance approach to eight illegal drugs, which are:

  • Benzoylecgonine (the main metabolite of cocaine)
  • Cocaine
  • Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (cannabis)
  • Ketamine
  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
  • Methylamphetamine (crystal meth)
  • Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA/ecstasy)
  • Monoacetylmorphine (heroin)

The prescription drugs are:

  • Morphine
  • Diazepam
  • Clonazepam
  • Flunitrazepam
  • Lorazepam
  • Oxazepam
  • Temazepam
  • Methadone

An effective change

In a recent review of the legislation, it was revealed that the conviction rate for drug driving prosecutions in 2015 was 98% - up from 80% in 2012.

The change in law appears to have helped reduce instances of drug-driving, too. The percentage of people who reported taking illegal drugs and driving under the influence of those drugs has fallen, from 9.2% in 2014/15 to 5.0% in 2015/16.

How can I ensure I stay within the law?

When it comes to avoiding being caught driving under the influence of illegal drugs, the best advice is simply not to take them.

The drink and drug driving campaign THINK! advises drivers who are taking prescribed medication at high doses to carry evidence with them, such as prescriptions slips, when driving in order to minimise any inconvenience should they be asked to take a test by the police.

The government has said there will be a medical defence if a driver has been taking medication as directed and is found to be over the limit but not impaired.

However, the evaluation of the drug driving legislation found no evidence of any negative impact on users of prescribed medications in the first year after its introduction.

Penalties for drug driving

If you’re convicted of drug driving you’ll get:

  • a minimum 1 year driving ban
  • an unlimited fine
  • up to six months in prison
  • a criminal record

Your driving licence will also show you’ve been convicted for drug driving. This will last for 11 years. The penalty for causing death by dangerous driving under the influence of drugs is a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

A conviction for drug driving also means:

  • your car insurance costs may increase
  • if you drive for work, your employer will see your conviction on your licence
  • you may have trouble travelling to countries such as the USA

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