The government has announced a new offence of drug driving, which actually isn’t a new offence at all because it’s always been illegal to drive if unfit (ie intoxicated) by drugs. What’s makes this interesting is they intend to set limits for the amount of “illegal” drugs you can have in your body which will be considered to be causing impairment.

The problem with drug testing for drivers is as always cannabis, the past use of which is very easy to detect with a simple swab test. The problem is a positive test for cannabis use has no bearing on how stoned the driver actually is, it’s simply proof that he has used cannabis sometime in the past few weeks. What the government seems to have decided to do is to test for impairment, which means measuring how much cannabis you’re taken and, presumably, how recently. Quite how they intend to do this isn’t clear yet so we await with interest to see what thye are intending to do.

Now one thing to make clear; this website has no problem with measures which prevent driving under the influence of cannabis or any other drug – and yes, this should include the pharmecutical drugs your doctor gives you. There are people who will argue that stoned driving is not a problem and even that driving stoned is safer than driving sober, UKCIA does not subscribe to that way of thinking; getting stoned makes it harder to judge speed and makes for reduced tracking ability, it slows reaction times and affects other issues crucial to driving safely. It is true that unlike alcohol cannabis does not give the driver a false sense of skill and that it does not increase confidence. It is true that stoned drivers tend to be slow drivers and if anything over-cautious, but a car is a lethal weapon and it is very important to remember that. Stoned driving is undoubtably less dangerous than drunk driving, but that doesn’t make it a good thing to do.

Any such limit is going to be arbitory to an extent, as it is with the drink-driving limit. Different people have different body masses, different rates of metabolism and so on. But there is an important difference when it comes to complying with such a limit with cannabis that doesn’t apply to alcohol. Because cannabis is not a controlled drug like alcohol you have no way of knowing how strong it is. Here of course we are talking strength, not potency. The important variable is how much THC you will be consuming. So unlike the way it treats alcohol, the law actually denies you any way of knowing if you are obeying the smoke/drive regulations because the law prevents you knowing how strong the cannabis you have actually is. So it’s going to be a very difficult law to obey and that could raise an interesting challenge at some point.

However, there is another dimension to this which cuts to the very heart of our modern way of life.

Back in the 1950’s and 60’s the car seemed to offer a bright future of freedom and mobility. Our whole way of life was to be transformed by the arrival of the automobile, towns and cities were rebuilt and fast new roads constructed, we took this technology to our heart and owning a new car became the ambition of many. Being able to buy a car was a huge motivating force in many peoples lives.

But this freedom came at a price. Children everywhere lost their playground as the roads where they had played for generations became death strips. No longer allowed to walk to school because of the danger caused by cars, they are now ferried on “the school run”, which only adds to the danger for everyone else. No longer free to play in the street with other kids, childhood has changed from free range to battery rearing in a generation.

The air we breath is polluted by car exhuasts, it hangs like a brown fog over some cities. Other things are less tangible; the sound of birdsong has been replaced by a constant drone of exhausts and the dark star filled skies which have inspired so many people replaced by the orange glow of streetlights. Bustling town centres are dying, to be replaced by out of town shopping centres which can only be reached by the car. Tightly knit communities have been scattered, families dispersed and the street with its corner shop replaced by miles of sprawling suburbs which assume the ownership of at least one car.

What was once a promise of freedom has become an enslaving curse with many forced to commute in grindingly slow traffic jams as petrol and parking costs increase almost daily. The car is no longer the luxury and icon of living it was sold as being, it is now an essential part of just existing for the many who bought into the lifestyle.

Driving, in essence, is not a right, it’s a privilege, a an add-on to life. But for an ever increasing number of us it’s an essential part of their existence. A great many people are enslaved to the car and by extension the ownership of a driving licence. No licence = no car. No car = no job. No job = no house.

So through the driving licence the government has a very powerful way of influencing the way people live their lives. If the government were to tie the possession of a driving licence to issues not related to driving ability, they would have a very powerful weapon of control against a large proportion of the population. People who have already given up so much of what used to be considered normal everyday rights now have to conform in order to keep the privilage they require in order to live.

With drug use they have a very powerful argument for introducing just this sort of social control; use “illegal” drugs and you lose your licence. It’s the sort of measure the prohibition lobby have been dreaming of for years.

That’s what makes this whole situation interesting and it’s one people interested in drug law reform need to be taking a very active interest in.

It is pointless and utterly counter productive to try to argue for the right to drive stoned as some are doing. It is perhaps predictable that some cannabis enthusiasts would do that and sure enough these arguments are being made, they will not be listened to however. That said, it is important to ensure that road safety measures remain just that and do not become a mechanism of social control or repression.

There is another aspect to all this though, which is as car ownership becomes ever more unaffordable it will eventually – if it hasn’t already – become something that young people can no longer aspire to. If you can’t afford to insure, tax and buy a car, then why go to the expense of learning to drive? If added to this a licence is seen not as being the great promise of freedom and opportunity but a method of soical control, restriction and repression perhaps the writing is finally on the wall for the great car exonomy?

Will the car keep its hallowed position in society or will we reach some sort of tipping point where the mass market for new cars dries up, making volume car production unsustainable? Without a car so much of modern consumerist life is simply not possible, so what will happen as a result? Will the future see swathes of abandoned suburbs dotted with decaying shopping malls as people migrate back to dense urban living?

Nothing is impossible, it is of course important to remember that the great car economy is only a generation old, it could vanish as quickly as it came. Will we submit to Autogeddon style repression or are we about to see the death of a dream?

A personal comment – I made a lifestyle choice a long time ago now. I live in a city, within walking distance of everything I need. I lived 20 years without a car and didn’t really miss not having it. I do have one now as a pure luxury and I only ever drive totally sober. It is possible to live without cars if you don’t buy into the lifestyle.