UK Drug-Driving arrests have SKYROCKETED to an all time high – here’s why…

The number of arrests UK police forces made for drug driving has more than doubled in the last four years. Lisa Darvill explains what's happened and why we should be concerned.

by Lisa Darvill

On average, there’s been a staggering 113% rise in drug driving arrests since 2016, with no let up even during the coronavirus lockdown. But what exactly is going on here and why should this data be of concern? 

Of course, no one is criticising the police for trying to keep our roads safe and targeting those who are breaking the law. But with medical cannabis legal in the UK since 2018, the issue now becomes much more complicated and nuanced. What impact are these arrests having on medical cannabis patients? Are they being targeted unfairly, being stopped, tested and arrested for taking their legal prescription? 

Numbers and data tables won’t tell us the personal stories behind those being arrested or explain the context of each arrest. But I believe it’s fair to ascertain from the steep rise in the data, that patients certainly face the risk of criminalisation. It’s another layer of shame and stigma to add to the negative  connotations already associated with cannabis within all aspects of society, connotations that exist, of course, within law enforcement itself. 

Volteface sent out Freedom of Information Requests to every police force in the country, asking them the same question. Since 2016, how many arrests have been made for drug driving each year? And if possible, how many of these arrests were made in regards to driving under the influence of cannabis?

Despite this universal question, as with all requests like this, we got varying results. Some forces refused our request outright, saying it would breach the time limit permitted in law to answer such FOI requests. 

Others could only give us data for certain years, others could not specify cannabis and some, on the other hand, supplied us with numerous tables of information.  As the data started coming in, a clear picture started to emerge. The number of arrests were clearly rising. And by huge amounts in some areas. 

Firstly, let’s look at the averages. Of all the forces that responded to us with usable data, between 2016/17 and 2019/20, the number of drug drive arrests (the total number of arrests, without a specific drug being specified) rose by an average of 113%. If we look at the forces which did supply us with cannabis-specific data, the number of arrests for driving under the influence of cannabis rose by 149% over the same time period.

If we look at a slightly longer time period, the average rise in all drug drive arrests from 2016/17 to 2020/21 was 81%, and 72% for cannabis-only arrests over the same time period. Some local police force data was well above those averages. Out of all our responses, Wiltshire Police had the highest average rise, with a 269% rise over five years. Essex came in a close second, with a 268% rise, with honourable mentions to Lancashire, Cleveland, Staffordshire and Durham, who all saw their figures more than double.

In regards to the forces that supplied cannabis-specific data, North Wales, Cumbria and Derbyshire all saw their arrests double at least, with Deryshire’s rising by an incredible average of 311%. 

Now there were a small number of forces who’d seen their arrests reduced, so it’s important not to make sweeping assumptions or statements. For example, data from both Dorset and Cheshire showed a decline in arrests over the five year time period, although neither showed a year-on-year reduction. And the data from the Metropolitan Police, as one would expect from a force covering such a large metropolitan area, was one of the highest we collected. 

From 2016/17 to 2020/21, drug drive arrests rose by an average of 104% in the capital and cannabis-only drug drive arrests rose by 166%  over the same time period. As previously mentioned, the data does not seem to be largely skewed by the effects of the coronavirus lockdown, an interesting issue in itself and perhaps a cause for further study. 

But our aim here is not to necessarily investigate why there’s been such a rise, nor is it to embarrass the police or ‘pick on’ a particular force. It’s important to point out that the data from each force shouldn’t be compared to another, which is why we’ve focused on general averages over the same time period, rather than force by force comparisons.

Each police force records arrests in their own way on their own systems, in a way seemingly unique to them. Some explained they had recently changed systems which meant data from a certain time period could not be passed on. As  previously mentioned, some forces refused our request because it would mean manually going through each arrest to ascertain if drugs were involved, suggesting a lack of a centralised system.

But our concern is not with the administrative system of the police, however frustrating it might appear, and we’re very thankful to those forces that supplied us with data. Our concern is the impact this data is potentially having on medical cannabis patients. 

So what happens before a person is arrested for drug driving in the UK? Whilst their methods of record-keeping may differ, most forces in the UK follow the same system in this regard. Officers carry out a ‘field impairment assessment’, roadside tests which may include asking you to walk in a straight line, or they can use a roadside testing kit to screen for cannabis or cocaine.

If following these tests, police think you’re unfit to drive, you’ll be arrested and taken to a police station for a blood or urine test. Seems pretty straight forward and fair, that is, until you take a closer look at what is actually going on in these roadside tests. 

When it comes to testing for cannabis, the roadside drug test uses a driver’s saliva to test for levels of THC. The higher the level, the more likely to return a positive test. The issue here is that this simple test cannot discern between if the THC is causing intoxication and impairment, or whether it is simply left over in a person’s system from days ago. 

Furthermore, whereas there is a strong relationship between blood alcohol levels and impairment, the same cannot be said for THC in blood and saliva. These are poor and inconsistent measures of cannabis impairment. In addition, these tests are less accurate for people who use cannabis regularly. In an occasional cannabis user, THC can be detected in saliva for around 12 hours after use, but for a regular user, it can be detected for up to 30 hours. 

We’re quickly painting a picture here which is of real concern to a medical cannabis patient. They use cannabis regularly and although the THC is not impairing them and/or its effects have long worn off, it would still be detectable in a roadside test. Further investigations may lead to no charges being made, but at the roadside, the test is positive so the arrest is made. The unfair criminalisation has taken place, the damage of shame, embarrassment and stigma already done. 

Recent studies back-up these concerns over ineffective roadside testing. A recent two year RCT study in JAMA psychiatry showed that THC impairment takes place at significantly higher levels than is currently being detected by current police testing systems. The two year randomised clinic found that cannabis impairs driving safely 30 minutes after use, with the effects wearing off after around 4 hours 30 minutes. That’s a huge disparity when we remember how the roadside tests can detect THC for potentially, up to 30 hours. 

Imagine you’re a medical cannabis patient who wants to take their medicine before bed, commonplace amongst many chronically ill patients who rely on the medicine. You wake in the morning ready to start your day, which perhaps involves a drive to work. You are perfectly fine to drive, any effects of the THC well worn off, but yet if stopped and tested, you fail the test and face arrest. What would be the knock-on of this arrest?

Would you face any sanctions or testing at work? Would you face criticism from your family, from your peers? Perhaps you already feel the stigma associated with taking medical cannabis and would prefer to keep it private, something that now, is no longer an option to you. 

There’s an estimated 1.4 million medical cannabis patients in the UK, suffering from a range of chronic, painful and complex conditions such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, as well as mental health issues and gastrointestinal diseases. These are all  patients who, if driving, risk being unfairly criminalised.

This could create barriers for seeking employment, discourage patients from using their medicine altogether or perhaps even lead to patients turning to stronger, more dangerous drugs to manage their pain, such as opioids, which stay in a person’s system for a shorter period of time. 

Clearly, a solution to this problem is a much more accurate and reliable testing method. This issue needs to be recognised, addressed and new policies and testing put in place to protect medical cannabis patients. A potential solution is not some far off, undeveloped concept, but one which is being addressed as I type by an American biotechnology company. 

Bloonics have identified the need for a radical overhaul of the police roadside and workplace testing system.  They’ve come up with revolutionary new technology, which they say, will more accurately measure THC impairment levels. Their LuciX Technology, which will be able to be used by police at the roadside, will be able to estimate when a person has taken cannabis and calculate the probability they’re still impaired. 

Lex Beresnev, Co-Founder of Bloonics said: “We cannot, in good conscience as a society, allow outdated cannabis testing to impose such dangerous and unfair consequences onto medical patients. This research is highly concerning, as it highlights the potentially high volume of patients who face being stopped and arrested by police in the UK. 

 “Our innovative LuciX Technology will more accurately detect levels of THC (and associated cannabinoids) as well as active impairment. Easily usable outside of a laboratory environment, police forces and workplaces will be able to fairly screen for impairment. We truly believe we have the answer to ending the unfair criminalisation of cannabis patients world wide.” 

A solution might be available, but until this is identified as a problem by the government and police forces across the UK, nothing will change. We hope our data will help start this conversation, to make police forces and lawmakers think about how their systems are impacting medical cannabis patients.

Like others who receive a legal prescription, they should not feel shame or embarrassment for taking it. They should certainly not be worried about being unfairly criminalised when getting behind the wheel of a car – a thing most of us rely on, do every day and don’t even think twice about. 

This piece was written by Lisa Darvill, Head of Media at Volteface. Tweets @lisamdarvill

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