New regulations aimed at stopping people driving while on drugs have come into force in England and Wales.
For the first time, motorists face prosecution if they exceed limits set for the presence of eight illegal drugs, including cannabis and cocaine.
Police will be able to use “drugalysers” to screen for cannabis and cocaine at the roadside.
Campaigners said the changes were a “step in the right direction” while the government said they would save lives.
The new rules run alongside the existing law, under which it is an offence to drive when impaired by any drug.
The existing penalties mean drug drivers already face a fine up to £5,000, up to six months in prison and a minimum one-year driving ban.
The new regulations set low levels for the eight illegal drugs, with higher levels set for eight prescription drugs, including morphine and methadone.
Those using prescription drugs within recommended amounts will not be penalised.
Apart from using the “drugalysers”, officers can test for various drugs including ecstasy, LSD, ketamine and heroin at a police station, even if a driver passes the roadside check.
David Taylor, professor of psychopharmacology at Kings College, London and a member of the Department of Transport’s advisory panel on drug driving, said he believed the new rules would work as a much stronger deterrent and make prosecutions much easier.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme he said: “It’s a zero-tolerance approach.”
He said any exposure would render people over the limit and would leave them over the limit for up to 36 hours.
The situation for people who use prescription drugs had not changed, he said, but “the onus is on the individual to assure themselves that their driving ability is not impaired”.
He recommended that drivers who take prescription drugs carry proof so they could produce it at the roadside if needed.
Prescription drugs covered by the new law
- Clonazepam is prescribed to treat seizures or panic disorders
- Diazepam is used for anxiety disorders, alcohol withdrawal symptoms or muscle spasms
- Flunitrazepam (also known as Rohypnol) is a sedative originally used in hospitals for deep sedation in the 1970s
- Lorazepam is used to treat convulsions or seizures caused by epilepsy
- Oxazepam is used to relieve anxiety, including anxiety caused by alcohol withdrawal
- Temazepam affects chemicals in the brain that may become unbalanced and cause insomnia problems
- Methadone is used in the treatment of heroin addiction and for pain relief
- Morphine or opiates treat moderate to severe pain
The changes have been welcomed by the campaigning mother of a 14-year-old girl who was killed by a speeding driver who had smoked cannabis.
Lillian Groves died outside her home in New Addington, in Croydon, south London, in June 2010. The driver of the vehicle involved later received an eight-month jail sentence.
“We have fought tirelessly since losing Lillian, and our determination has brought about this significant change,” said Lillian’s mother, Natasha Groves.
“Those who continue to drive while on drugs from today will now have so much to lose.”
She told the Today programme she thought the problems with drug driving were much bigger than people realised “because they have been able to get away with it for so long”.
A government road safety THINK! campaign has also been launched to coincide with the new legislation.
Road Safety Minister Robert Goodwill said: “This new law will save lives.
“We know driving under the influence of drugs is extremely dangerous; it devastates families and ruins lives.
“The government’s message is clear – if you take drugs and drive, you are endangering yourself and others and you risk losing your licence and a conviction.”
The Institute of Advanced Motorists also welcomed the new legislation.
Chief executive Sarah Sillars said the law was “a real step in the right direction” for the eradication of driving under the influence of drugs.