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Expert panel publishes report on new drug-driving offence prompted by Lillian's Law campaign

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AN EXPERT panel tasked with exploring which substances should be included within a new drug-driving offence – prompted by the Advertiser's Lillian's Law campaign – has published its report.
It recommends adopting limits for illegal substances such as cannabis, heroin and cocaine and stricter controls for people who drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs at the same time.
The panel says the new offence should also contain thresholds for prescription drugs such as sleeping pills.
Transport Secretary Stephen Hammond said the offence would send the "strongest possible message" that motorists "cannot take any amount of illegal drugs and drive".
The panel was set up by the Department for Transport (DfT) after the Advertiser and the family of Lillian Groves, a 14-year-old schoolgirl killed by a driver who had taken cannabis, met Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street.
He promised to revise the law on drug-driving and a new offence, a key aim of our campaign, was subsequently included in the Crime and Courts Bill currently making its way through Parliament.
The penalty for the new offence will be a maximum of six months in prison and a fine of up to £5,000, with an automatic driving ban of at least 12 months. It removes the current need for police to prove a substance impaired a person's ability to drive, done by outdated balance and coordination tests.
The panel, led by Dr Kim Wolff, an expert in addiction science from King's College London, was  instructed to recommend which drugs should be covered and what levels should be imposed.
Lillian's family have called for a zero-tolerance policy to cannabis and the panel has come close to recommending one, suggesting a limit of 5 micrograms per litre (μg/L) for THC, the active ingredient.
"At this concentration," the report said, "the risks for involvement in, responsibility for, or injury as a result of a traffic accident when driving under the influence of cannabis are significant compared to a driver who has not consumed cannabis."
Sweden describes its policy as 'zero tolerance' with a threshold of 3μg/L, which the panel says should be the limit for cannabis when alcohol is also found in a driver's blood.
Scientific evidence shows cannabis has a significant impact on driving performance, almost doubling the chance of having an accident.
A study in 2011 was even more explicit about the dangers, finding that drivers were up to three times more likely to have a serious or fatal injury after using the drug.
It also noted a "significant increased accident risk" when the concentration was 5μg/L or higher - the panel's recommended level - "regardless of whether or not ingestion had occurred recently" or whether it was illicit or prescribed.
The expert panel considered scientific evidence about the prevalence of drug use, the risk to road safety and how different drugs affect drivers. To justify limits, risk estimates, or odds ratios, were calculated. It argues that, above the suggested limits, a person is unfit to drive.
Significantly higher limits were proposed for other illicit drugs covered by the offence including cocaine (80μg/L), ecstasy (300μg/L), amphetamine (600μg/L), ketamine (200 μg/L) and morphine (80 μg/L), as the product of heroin.
The report has also called for the new offence to include limits for prescription and medicinal drugs, including sleeping and anxiety pills.
Of particular concern, it said, was sleeping tablet zopiclone. Although not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and outside of the panel's remit, studies have found high road traffic accident risk associated with the substance, which is used to treat insomnia.
"The panel believes there is sufficient evidence to suggest a need for a threshold to be set for zopiclone," states the report.
Dr Wolff said the report, produced at King's College London, recognised that setting thresholds for prescription drugs was "particularly challenging".
"Characterisation of these drugs for drug-driving purposes is conceptually difficult because several different user groups, who use the medication in different circumstances, are involved," the report said.
"This includes those who legitimately use licensed psychoactive medication, those prescribed psychoactive medication for treatment of drug or alcohol dependency and those who obtain it illicitly and use it alone or with other drugs."
When considering what limits should be set for certain types of medication, the panel looked at blood concentration levels found in therapeutic use compared to drug-addicts misusing medicine.
For morphine, for example, it recommends a level significantly above the average found in cancer patients prescribed long term doses of the drug.
The prescription drugs which the panel recommends for inclusion in the new offence are methadone, diazepam, oxazepam, flunitrazepam, clonazepam, lorazepam and temazepam.
Drugs such as mephredrone, and other 'legal highs', will not be included due to a lack of scientific evidence about their effects on driving, but the report added: "That their pharmacology is so similar to that of the drugs for which we do have evidence makes it highly probable that they will pose similar risks."
Each substance considered for inclusion has had a lower limit set for when a driver is also found to have alcohol in their blood above 20 milligrams per 100 millilitres (20mg/100ml).
"There has been a considerable increase in poly-drug use by drivers and the road safety risk associated with driving after consuming drugs and alcohol at one time is extremely high," the report said.
"Based on this evidence, the panel is also recommending that a lower limit should be set for certain drugs where they are found in combination with alcohol, as this combination leads to much greater accident risk when driving than a low concentration of the drug on its own."
Lillian's family said they would need time to read the report fully, but welcomed the low threshold suggested for cannabis.
The schoolgirl was knocked down and killed outside her home in Headley Drive, New Addington, in June 2010 by speeding driver John Page.
A half-smoked cannabis joint was later found on his dashboard but due to the lack of roadside testing devices he was not subject to a blood test until nine hours after the incident.
The Wolff report supports the family's belief that had Page been screened sooner he may have faced a more serious charge than causing death by careless driving.
It stresses the time taken to take a sample of blood is the key to securing a prosecution.
"THC has a rapid metabolism, and if the time between the stop or accident and the blood sampling is delayed, the blood concentration may have decreased markedly," the report states.
"For instance, 5μg/L of THC will be expected to decrease to  1.25μg/L after 3 hours."
A testing device was approved by the Home Office for use in police stations from January and, the Government says, will be used by the roadside by 2014.
Mr Hammond, speaking to the Press Association, said: "The Government will carefully consider the panel's recommendations.
"In doing so, we are clear that the design of the new offence must send the strongest possible message that you cannot take any amount of illegal drugs and drive.
"At the same time, the Government must consider the position of those who legitimately and safely use medicines which may contain controlled drugs.
"We recognise for the purposes of drug testing, distinguishing between those drugs which do have medical uses and those which do not is complex."

Expert panel publishes report on new drug-driving offence prompted by Lillian's Law campaign


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