The recent White Paper ‘Towards the strength­ening of the legal framework on the responsible use of cannabis’ has already triggered several debates in the media. As a representative trade body for insurers, the Malta Insurance Association’s role (MIA) is not to take a position on this issue but, on the other hand, the MIA is very concerned about the consequences of what is deemed to be a lack of preparedness and of systems for when such a massive change in the law regulating drug use takes place.

While the White Paper makes a very clear statement about the “prohibition of cannabis consumption in public”, it surprisingly makes no reference whatsoever to driving under the influence. Article 15A of the Traffic Regulation Ordinance does make it unequivocally clear that “No person shall drive or attempt to drive or be in charge of a motor vehicle or other vehicle on a road or other public place if he is unfit to drive through drink or drugs”.

While this omission in the White Paper may have been an oversight, the MIA strongly recommends that a clear reference to such a prohibition should be included in it. The message must be made very clear that, even if personal use of cannabis no longer remains a criminal offence, it is still a criminal offence to drive after having used it.

The MIA is equally concerned by the fact that, unlike other countries, where the enforcement of drink/drug driving rules is strong, unfortunately, we still lag behind in effective enforcement and, in some res­pects, our police do not even have the means with which to enforce the law. If one had to take a cue from the approach adopted by Cyprus, a neighbouring island like ours roughly twice the size of Malta population-wise, the government there introduced, in 2018, the legislative framework catering for roadside checks for driving under the influence of drugs. The medical cannabis law was then approved a year later and not before.

Scotland and Ireland take drug driving very seriously, having both introduced roadside drug tests in 2017 and 2019 respectively while also setting limits on driving after the use of medically prescribed drugs.

If we then had to consider Australia, which is probably light years ahead of most European countries where it comes to controlling driving under the influence, the continent has taken a no-nonsense approach towards drug driving and, in 2020, formalised its drug-driving laws, which apply to all states and focus on three main areas: roadside drug testing (RDT) laws; impairment laws (driving under the influence (DUI) / driving while impaired (DWI); and combination (drug and alcohol driving) laws.

The MIA’s concerns are already perfectly legitimate if one had to consider drug consumption on its own. While the White Paper acknowledges as ‘conservative’ the results that had been obtained from a survey conducted by MaltaToday, in which 9.3 per cent of those interviewed admitted to having smoked cannabis at least once in their life, drug use was here considered completely in isolation.

While the White Paper makes a very clear statement about the ‘prohibition of cannabis consumption in public’ it makes no reference to driving under the influence- Adrian Galea

What would be pertinent to consider is whether drug consumption is regularly accompanied by alcohol consumption as well and followed with some form of activity such as driving and, finally, whether (as in Australia’s case) there was a combination of both drink and drug driving. Equally important is establishing the effect that drugs may have on the user’s behaviour in workplaces and whether this may endanger the safety of others along with that of the user.

The MIA understands that a national drug policy is in an advanced state of drafting and, while it cannot comment on the merits whether personal drug use, including medical use, should be decriminalised or not, it must strongly advocate the zero tolerance of both driving after have used any drugs or having consumed alcohol above the legal limits.

The MIA has been lobbying vigorously for changes to be introduced to the current legislative framework, in particu­lar for the law to treat both drink and drug driving at a par. It is not good enough to consider such actions as an offence but, more importantly, the policing authorities need to be empowered, through specialist training and equipment, to enforce such laws.

If our law enforcement is weak, introducing changes such as the ones being proposed in the White Paper would not only be premature but also continue to confuse minds and, perhaps, cause policing officials to err on the safe side when enforcing these laws and, possibly, take the easy way out.

Whereas the police and LESA are nowadays equipped with breathalyser kits (most of which were donated to the police by the MIA itself some time ago) and while alcohol limits are clearly defined by law in order to determine whether those tested are above the limit or not, this situation is not at all reflected where drug testing is concerned.

This country still lacks a proper legislative structure for (roadside) drug tests to be carried out and the police/LESA do not have the means to do so.

The MIA has also proposed that drink/drug testing must become mandatory in all serious traffic accidents, whether they give rise to injuries or not, while the law should clearly empower the police to carry out random testing. These, among others, were in essence some of the amendments proposed to the local authorities and which, unfortunately, still need to see the light of day.

In conclusion, we would reiterate the MIA’s proposal that a clear zero-tolerance approach to drug (and drink) driving needs to be adopted and that regular enforcement against such abuse is conducted by policing authorities, who must be properly empowered and equipped to carry this out.

Furthermore, investment in knowledge and equipment together with an awareness campaign cannot be emphasised enough. In addition, the MIA believes that, before embarking on such an innovative and challenging change, the authorities should embark on a process of understanding what the extent of drug-driving on our roads is through extensive research and then create the necessary framework in preparation for its implementation.

Adrian Galea, director general, Malta Insurance Association

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us