Experts: Zero-tolerance on ‘cannabis driving’ too severe

Police are using a new machine that can detect traces of cannabis in the saliva of drivers

Experts are questioning the severity of a zero-tolerance policy towards those caught driving with detectable levels of illegal drugs in their bodies, as some drugs, such as cannabis, can be detected long after their effects have worn off.

The experts have voiced their concerns following the news last week that the police have started using a new mobile drug testing kit called the 'narkometer', which can detect traces of seven different drugs in people's saliva.

Those testing positive while driving face a three-year driving ban and a fine equivalent to four percent of their gross annual pay.

But according to Sundhedsstyrelsen, the national health authority, traces of the active ingredient in cannabis, THC, can be detected in a person’s body for up to eight weeks after they have used the drug.

The result is that people can be fined and lose their driving licence long after they have sobered up from the effects of the drug.

The police's 'narkometer' can detect traces of drugs in people's saliva (Photo: Scanpix)According to Henrik Rindom, a doctor specialising in drug abuse, the legal limit for cannabis use has been set so low that it amounts to harassment.

“Because the authorities can’t impact the cannabis trade through policing efforts, they are instead targeting consumers,” Rindom told Information newspaper, adding that the regulation had nothing to do with traffic safety.

This position is supported by Inger Marie Bernhoft, a senior researcher at the Technical University of Denmark who participated in a large European study examining the risks associated with driving under the influence of illegal drugs.

“The Danish limits are set so that almost any trace will result in a positive result,” Bernhoft said. “But there is no evidence that the influence of the drugs at this limit  will increase the number of traffic accidents.”

Furthermore, according to the EU study, cannabis use in general does not lead to a substantial increase in the number of serious traffic accidents. The increase was no greater than the increase in accidents involving drivers with legal levels of alcohol in their blood. The study did, however, show a noticeable increase in the risk associated with mixing alcohol with illegal drugs and medicine.

Rindom has called for a commission to establish a legal level of THC in a person’s body while driving. While this move has received some political support, opposition party Venstre is against reducing the punishment for driving with detectable levels of THC in the blood.

 “I would want to hear the arguments first,” Venstre MP Karsten Nonbo said. “It’s a dilemma that people can be charged with having small amounts of [THC] in the blood. But then you should not drive if you want to smoke cannabis. We should not put traffic safety at risk.”

Mayor Frank Jensen (Socialdemokraterne) told the Ritzau news bureau that he was not opposed to the police’s use of the narkometer, but argued that legalising cannabis use was the best way to reduce the negative impact of the two billion kroner annual trade in the drug.

“I don’t think there is any contradiction between the use of the narkometer and the pilot programme to legalise cannabis,” Jensen said. “We need to consider alternatives to the control strategy that we have used for several decades without making any impact on the cannabis market.”

Police are expected to make regular use of the narkometer because it is much quicker and cheaper than blood tests, which must be processed in a laboratory. The machine only takes eight minutes to register a result.