OPINION | Reform should be driving protection for medicinal cannabis patients

Reform should be driving protection for medicinal cannabis patients

It may come as a surprise to many that the average medicinal cannabis user in Australia is a woman aged in her 50s.

She may be taking the prescription medication to relieve pain or help her sleep. She may be a cancer patient.

Yet while it has been legal for her to use medical cannabis in Australia since 2016, she and tens of thousands like her risk breaking the law every single day by doing something the rest of us take for granted.

At the moment, Australia's drug driving laws do not distinguish between marijuana and cannabis-based medications.

Patients prescribed medical cannabis are advised to stop driving or wait a few days - putting those who need to drive and who rely on daily or regular doses of medicinal cannabis in a precarious position.

In an Australian first, Victoria is reforming its laws to fix this anomaly.

It is a sensible and long overdue move and other states should follow suit so no medicinal cannabis driver will face criminal charges.

Currently, if you are pulled over for a random saliva test and found to have THC in your system, police can charge you with drug driving - even if you have a prescription and even though the THC in medicinal cannabis does not make patients high.

Earlier this year a South Australian multiple sclerosis patient, who was charged with drug driving while using medicinal cannabis, fought his case in court. In a landmark decision, the magistrate dismissed the charge after she found no evidence the THC impaired his driving.

It's simply unfair to ask these patients to fight legal battles.

They should be treated in the same way as anyone on prescription medication - they should be allowed to drive without the threat of prosecution as patients who use opioids and benzodiazepines are.

As Victorian MP Fiona Patten puts it: "You can't encourage the manufacture of a medicine that brings relief to many patients then criminalise the very taking of that same medicine - it makes no sense whatsoever".

As a relatively new medicine, more research is needed to understand how medicinal cannabis works, who benefits from it and what, if any effect, it has on driving.

But the risk of charges discourages patients from joining clinical trials, hampering research efforts and slowing down development of new products.

It's time for politicians, the medical profession and law and order experts to unite to stop the discrimination.

Dr Richard Hopkins is the Managing Director of Perth-based medicinal cannabis company Zelira Therapeutics.