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Victoria prepares to launch medicinal cannabis driving trial

Medicinal cannabis users will be able to get behind the wheel on closed roads as part of a trial to assess the impact the drug has on their driving ability, under new laws introduced to Victorian parliament.

While Victoria in 2016 became the first state to approve the use of medicinal cannabis, it remains an offense for a person to drive with any trace of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis, in their system.

THC can be present in a driver’s system for long periods of time, even after the initial effects have worn off. Tasmania is the only state that provides a medical defense for driving with THC in body fluids.

The transport legislation amendment bill 2023, introduced to parliament on Tuesday, would allow medicinal cannabis users to drive as part of a closed-circuit trial overseen by the state government.

The government said it would commission an independent research organisation – which has yet to be announced – to develop and implement the trial, supported by staff from the Department of Transport and Planning, road safety experts and health professionals.

 
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The trial would be conducted in a controlled-driving environment physically separated from public roads, the government said.

Medicinal cannabis users have raised concerns for several years that Victoria’s current laws mean they risk losing their licence or being fined each time they drive to work or drop their children off at school.

In 2021, parliament’s medicinal cannabis and safe driving working group commissioned three universities to conduct additional research into the issue, but there have been delays due to Covid-19.

In February, the then-premier, Daniel Andrews, said reforming the law was a priority for the government.

The road safety minister, Melissa Horne, said there had been an increase of more than 700% in the number of patients prescribed with medicinal cannabis in Victoria over the past two years.

She said medicinal cannabis was playing an increasing role as a therapeutic option for individuals with certain health conditions who feel they can drive safely without impairment.

But Horne said “significant gaps” remain in understanding THC’s potential impairment for different driver cohorts, and the relationship between THC concentrations from medicinal cannabis and its road safety risk.

“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,” she said.

Horne said a steering committee involving road safety partners would also be established to monitor the trial, with all data and evidence to be carefully considered before any future recommendations.

 
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“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.”

Upper house MPs Rachel Payne and David Ettershank, from the Legalise Cannabis party, have been calling for changes to the law for it to no longer be an offence for a driver who is unimpaired 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 supportive of the trial, they were concerned it may take too long.

“The reality is patients continue to wait. Medicinal cannabis has been prescribed since 2016, that’s a long time for patients to have to wait for a resolution,” Payne said.

“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.”

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