The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has recently become the first jurisdiction in Australia to legalise cannabis for personal use. This allows a person over 18 years of age to possess up to 50 grams of marijuana and two plants. Of course, the Liberal opposition opposed the bill believing it would lead to more people using cannabis which they said would lead to an increased rate of psychosis and more instances of drug-driving. The law conflicts with Commonwealth law, but the backbencher who introduced the bill doesn’t think it likely that the federal government would fight this. Indeed, federal attorney-general, Christian Porter said it was a matter for the ACT. This is surprising, given that Coalition governments have overturned territory laws before, in 1995, when the Northern Territory legalised voluntary euthanasia, and when the ACT legalised same-sex marriage in 20131.
It seems that Christian Porter did not talk to leader of the parliamentary National Party and deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, before the latter ranted in the Daily Bellylaugh. In his opinion piece, McCormack stated that he has overall responsibility for road safety and fears all these doped-up territorians tearing about the ACT roads as high as kites2. On the surface, this would appear to the average conservative nutter to be a reasonable thing for McCormack to say, but it is not. Firstly, in Victoria, where cannabis is still illegal, in 2018, 4634 people were changed with a drug driving offence, while 5164 were changed with drunk driving. Secondly, with alcohol there is a threshold of 0.05% blood concentration, but with cannabis there is no threshold. Therefore, any amount of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis) detected in the roadside test qualifies as an illegal amount3,4. I have driven numerous times under the influence of alcohol, it’s just that my levels were below 0.05% which makes them entirely legal. At about 0.05% blood alcohol concentration is when the negative effects of alcohol start to kick in, and that is presumably why the threshold is set at that level. Alcohol can be detected in the bloodstream for up to 12 hours, but this depends on many factors, such as age, gender, body composition and overall health4.
Numerous studies of the effects of THC on driving have been undertaken with mixed results, but several have shown limited evidence of causality5. In addition, THC can stick around for longer than alcohol, and the standard saliva test can detect THC for about 24 hours after use, with some saliva tests detecting it as much as 3 days after use. Strangely, THC disappears from the bloodstream much faster than alcohol6.
McCormack also uses the standard conservative technique of associating only vaguely connected facts, insinuating they are connected. This he does with the road toll which as of September, stood at around 826 fatalities for the year, this while Cannabis was illegal in all states and territories. For someone with overall responsibility for road safety, he seems alarmingly unsuccessful. McCormack then lists a few disconnected other facts as if to support his argument that territorians will have more car accidents. He lists the statistics in Colorado which, along with Washington and Oregon and seven other states in the US, legalised recreational marijuana use. There was an increase in road fatalities, to the tune of about an extra 1 per million residents. However, this increase was temporary, and the fatality rate went back to ‘normal’ after about a year. It was suspected that this temporary increase in fatalities was due to an increase in numbers of new or less experienced cannabis users7. McCormack then goes onto New Zealand, where possession of any amount of cannabis is illegal8. Despite this, new research has shown that more people died on New Zealand roads after collisions involving drug-drivers than drunk-drivers, but at the time (June, 2018), there was no test available to New Zealand police like the saliva test used by police in Australia9. So, McCormack is at best being disingenuous and, at worst, lying by omission. This is a common method used by government members of parliament10.
Just as an aside, Portugal decriminalised all drug use in 200111 and since the late 1990s road fatalities in Portugal have decreased 82%12. While there is likely no causal relationship, it makes you wonder about McCormack’s predictions of road chaos should the federal government allow the legalisation of cannabis in the ACT to go ahead. Given that over the same time interval, road deaths in Australia have declined from about 2,000 to about 1,100 per annum (a decrease of about 45%)13, it also makes you wonder about the abilities of those with overall responsibility for road safety over that time interval. So, McCormack’s opinion piece is not based on any substantial evidence, it is simply an idiotic tirade against a relatively popular Labor-Greens government which make his chaotic federal Coalition government look even more ridiculous.
- McCormack, M., Road safety goes up in smoke thanks to dopes. The Daily Telegraph, October 2, 2019.