Expert opinion by Specialist Drug Driving Lawyer, Alison Ashworth – Managing Director of Ashworth Motoring Law.
Over one year since the new “specified limit” drug driving law was introduced and there are STILL no sentencing guidelines in place to regulate the way that offenders are punished.
Sentencing guidelines (such as the attached with reference to drink driving) are used by Judges and Magistrates to help them decide what sentence to impose when a person either pleads guilty or is found guilty of an offence.
Prior to the introduction of the new offence, I contacted the sentencing council to ask when the guidelines for the new drug driving offence would be put in place. I was told to expect them in at least 2016.
Having seen reports of significantly different sentencing approaches between different Courts as I predicted in this BBC radio interview that I gave on the day that the new law came into force, I recently contacted the sentencing council again to find out how soon the guidelines were likely to be released. I was told that their two year plan does not include work on this guideline but that it is anticipated that it will be added to the work plan in the future. The sentencing council added that as with any relatively new piece of legislation there is the need to allow a certain period of time to pass before producing guidelines as the production of a guideline relies on research and evidence.
The concern that I have is that Judges and Magistrates are, in the meantime tempted to sentence offenders in a similar manner to guidelines which are available. Take the drink drive limit for example. Our drink driving limits are amongst the highest in Europe. A person who is three times over the limit is likely to be showing some pretty significant signs of intoxication, and their manner of driving along with the level of risk that they pose to themselves and to the public is likely to be significantly effected.
Now let’s look at the drug driving limits. The drug driving limits have been set so low that even one puff on a joint could be enough to put someone over the limit, despite them feeling no effects from the drug, and their manner of driving being perfectly normal. In fact the Governments own panel of experts suggested that a person would be technically fit to drive with twice the current level of THC (cannabis) in their system, although the Government chose to disregard the expert panel’s advice and pursue the current, almost zero tolerance limits for every single illicit drug listed under the legislation.
There have in fact been reports of individuals who have been caught 25 and 50 times over the drug driving limit yet showing no obvious signs of having taken a drug with perfectly normal standards of driving. If the same level of consumption was extended to alcohol, the person would most likely be either in hospital or dead. If they somehow managed to survive, then they would be facing the most serious sentencing category of the guidelines and would be facing a prison sentence because the level of impairment is so intrinsically linked to the amount of alcohol consumed .
There is a significant risk that motorists are being unduly punished with tangibly greater severity than is warranted, indeed the Courts have displayed a willingness to send drivers to prison for committing the new specified limit drug driving offence.
Whilst I do not condone drug driving, or drug taking, I do, as a defence lawyer have a passion for fighting against injustice and ensuring that my clients are treated fairly by the Courts. Although the overwhelming majority of my clients choose to plead not guilty to this offence after an initial investigation into the merits of their defence, I do have a duty to advise those who wish to plead guilty on the likely sentence that they could face. In the absence of the guidelines, and with the differing approaches which are being taken by the Courts, this continues to be a difficult task.
Is it fair to sentence a young cannabis user who was twice the legal limit for THC (cannabis) and who was not even remotely effected by the small amount that he took in the same way as a drink driver who was twice the limit and barely able to stand up? I certainly don’t think so.
When the guidelines are eventually produced, I would like to see a strong link between the expected level of impairment and the amount of substance in a person’s system, although by then it might be too late for the many who are left unrepresented in Court facing the lucky dip that appears to be the current sentencing approach in the meantime.
Article written by Expert Motoring Lawyer, Alison Ashworth; Managing Director of Ashworth Motoring Law Ltd.
Ashworth Motoring Law are experts in defending drug driving offences. If you have been charged with drug driving and would like to speak to a specialist drug driving solicitor about your case, call 0330 33 22 770 for free initial advice.