As of March 2nd 2015, the UK's drug driving laws will change, making it illegal to drive with certain levels of both illegal and prescription drugs in your system.
Plans for the new laws were originally announced back in March 2014 and were in and out of the news for some time before that, so you'd be forgiven for thinking that so-called "drug driving" was already illegal.
However, publicity around the issue has also been a little bit muddled. This guide will set out a few of the changes to the law, and what they mean. You'll get to know which drugs now have driving limits imposed upon them and why, what those limits are, and how the law will work.
We've also produced an interactive guide for motorists to understand the effects of drugs on their driving.
The new laws – what are they?
The general laws around illegal drugs haven't changed; there is now just an additional law in place criminalising driving over certain limits, just like with alcohol.
The most complicated change, though – and the one that will affect the most people – is the addition of prescription drugs to the list. It will be illegal to drive if you are over certain limits of legal prescription drugs.
Whether legal or illegal drugs are in your system, you can be charged with drug driving, and the penalties will be the same as drink driving.
Just over half of adults in the UK (47%) regularly take prescription drugs, according to NHS research . Unlike recreational drugs or alcohol, they aren't always the sort of thing you can just stop taking.
Even though they're there to make us feel better, the side-effects of prescription drugs can often be as severe as those of illegal drugs or alcohol, especially on driving ability.
If you experience seizures of spasms, for example, you may think you will be safe to drive under the influence of drugs that control these conditions. However, they could also cause drowsiness or impaired co-ordination that may mean you are unfit to drive.
The new tests are very similar to those for alcohol. Saliva tests for drugs will come in to place alongside breathalysers for alcohol, although it is not yet clear whether these will be used to detect prescription drugs as well as cannabis and cocaine. If you get pulled over by the police and they suspect you are under the influence, there is a good chance you will have to take one of these tests at the roadside.
Even if you pass a saliva test, you may be required to do a 'field impairment assessment' – the classic walk-in-a-straight-line to prove you're sober, and so on.
Failing any of these tests could result in an arrest, and further blood tests at a police station. However, there will be a medical defence if you have been taking medication as directed, yet are still over the limit. Obviously you'll need some proof of this, such as a doctor's note.
If you have a doctor's note or a record of your prescription, make sure you keep a copy in your car if you need to drive after taking medication. Even if you present this to the police, it will not automatically mean you’ll be cleared if you fail either of the tests.
The best advice is, as always, to consult your doctor if you have any doubts about driving after taking medication.
Will I be affected?
Those that take illegal drugs will definitely be affected – the levels are deliberately low enough to effectively show a zero-tolerance approach, stricter even than alcohol laws.
They are also high enough, though, that a defence of 'accidental inhalation' or anything similar would not be a valid excuse if a user was pulled over.
If you take any of the prescription drugs, it is less likely that you will be over the limit – they have been set to exceed normal prescribed doses that allow people to function normally – but you are still at risk of being declared 'unfit to drive'.
"Over the limit" or "unfit to drive" – how is it different?
If you're taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs in the correct way, as directed by your doctor or the product documentation, it is unlikely that you'll find yourself over the limit to drive. You will likely already know from experience whether you feel ok to drive after taking medication or not.
Of course, everyone metabolises drugs differently, much like with alcohol. It is impossible to provide any guidance on, say, how many Valium tablets will push you over the limit, or how much of an effect drugs will have even if you remain under the limit.
Whether you are fit to drive or not is not down to you – it's down to the police. You can be under the limit but still be affected enough by medication that it has an impact on your driving also.
If you are pulled over by the police and they suspect you are under the influence of drugs – whether legal or illegal – they can carry out a series of tests to find out whether you are over the limit or unfit to drive.
Illegal drugs - the limits
The limits for illegal drugs are as follows:
1. benzoylecgonine, 50 µg/L
2. cocaine, 10 µg/L
3. delta–9–tetrahydrocannabinol (cannabis and cannabinol), 2 µg/L
4. ketamine, 20 µg/L
5. lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 1 µg/L
6. methylamphetamine, 10 µg/L
7. methylenedioxymethaphetamine (MDMA – ecstasy), 10 µg/L
8. 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM – heroin and diamorphine), 5 µg/L
The low limits make these among the strictest drug driving laws in the world – pretty much zero tolerance, which makes them more stringent than alcohol rules.
In terms of cannabis, for example, one cigarette will be enough to put you over the limit, although second-hand inhalation will not.
It doesn't matter if someone may be less impaired after the smallest amount of recreational drug use than someone who's had a pint of beer – they're much less likely to be under the limit.
Prescription drugs guide
Below are the prescription drugs that are covered by the new drug laws, along with trade names that you may know them by, conditions they are used to treat, and side effects that may cause you to be found unfit to drive.
As always, talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about driving after taking prescription medication.
Otherwise known as: Rivotril, Linotril, Clonotril, Klonopin
Limit: 50 µg/L
Uses: Anti-anxiety, anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant, sedative
Effects: Drowsiness, motor impairment, confusion, dizziness, hallucinations, amnesia
Otherwise known as: Valium, Diastat, Intensol
Limit: 550 µg/L
Uses: Anti-anxiety, treating panic attacks, insomnia and seizures, muscle spasms and alcohol withdrawal
Effects: Impaired co-ordination, dizziness, rage, memory loss, drowsiness, muscle weakness, double vision
Otherwise known as: Narcozep, Rohypnol, Roipnol
Limit: 300 µg/L
Uses: Rarely used now, in part due to the connotations as a "date rape" drug, but sometimes prescribed as an extreme treatment for insomnia.
Effects: Drowsiness, confusion, memory impairment
Otherwise known as: Ativan, Intensol
Limit: 100 µg/L
Effects: Drowsiness, dizziness, blurred vision, muscle weakness, lack of coordination, trouble concentrating
Otherwise known as: Symoron, Dolophine, Amidone, Methadose, Physeptone, Heptadon
Limit: 500 µg/L
Uses: Pain relief, drug addiction detoxification
Effects: Weakness and drowsiness, confusion, convulsions
Otherwise known as: AVINza, Kadian, MS Contin
Limit: 80 µg/L
Uses: Severe pain relief
Effects: Extreme drowsiness, dizziness, anxiety
Otherwise known as: Alepam, Bonare, Medopam, Murelax, Noripam, Opamox, Ox-Pam, Purata, Serax, Serepax, Vaben, Sobril, Oxascand, Oxapax, Alopam, Zaxpam, Praxiten
Limit: 300 µg/L
Uses: Anti-anxiety, anti-insomnia, alcohol withdrawal treatments
Effects: Dizziness, drowsiness, memory impairment
Otherwise known as: Euhypnos, Normison, Norkotral, Nortem, Remestan, Restoril, Temaze, Temtabs, Tenox
Limit: 1000 µg/L
Uses: Muscle relaxant, anticonvulsant, anti-insomnia
Effects: Extreme drowsiness, dizziness, fatigue, slowed reactions
If you're concerned about a particular medication, you can use this index to cross-compare any affected drugs that you take to find out what they contain.
Under the new laws, eight illegal drugs and eight common prescription drugs have had driving limits imposed . They are:
• delta–9–tetrahydrocannabinol (cannabis and cannabinol)
• lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
• methylenedioxymethaphetamine (MDMA – ecstasy)
• 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM – heroin and diamorphine)
Even if you don't recognise any of these names, the medication you use may still contain them. Be sure to check the drugs index at the end of this guide and consult a doctor if you are unsure.
You can find more information from the government on the laws at the following links:
Drugs and driving: the law - https://www.gov.uk/drug-driving-law
Public approval for driving limits for 16 drugs - https://www.gov.uk/government/news/public-approval-for-driving-limits-for-16-drugs
Being stopped by the police while driving: your rights - https://www.gov.uk/stopped-by-police-while-driving-your-rights/breath-tests