Experts call for stiffer penalties on drugged-up driving
More Germans than ever before are getting behind the wheel while on drugs, but they don't face the same penalties as those driving drunk, according to legal experts.
Whereas drivers caught under the influence of drugs like hashish, cocaine and ecstasy generally escape with only a misdemeanor and fine, drivers with a blood alcohol content in excess of 1.1 per mille are slapped with a harsher felony charge.
In light of this discrepancy, around 400 experts are meeting at a traffic law conference in Goslar in Lower Saxony this week to discuss tougher penalties for drivers found under the influence of drugs.
“It is clear that while the fight against drunk driving has had success, the drug problem demands ever-greater attention,” said Markus Schäpe, a legal expert for the German automobile club ADAC.
He and other specialists agree the problem on Germany's roads is getting worse. While the number of alcohol-related driving offences decreased by 22 percent between 2004 and 2009, according to the Federal Motor Transport Authority, the number of drug-related cases increased by 20 percent over the same period. The agency reported nearly 30,000 drug-related traffic violations in 2009.
“If someone drinks at night and drives a car the next morning, he is punished according to his residual blood alcohol content, and rightly so,” said Schäpe.
But someone who uses drugs at night and drives under their influence the next morning is not held equally accountable, he said.
“If this person says: ‘I thought I had nothing in my blood because the drug loses its effect after three or four hours’, then the courts are, oddly, very lenient,” Schäpe said. “When it comes to residual alcohol, the courts have never displayed this point of view.”
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is equally dangerous and should be punished equally, Schäpe said, adding consumers of drugs must be discouraged from getting behind the wheel unless “they can be certain that their blood contains only trace amounts of the substance.”
But that could be a difficult task, since modern forensics detect drugs in a subject’s system a week after consumption, explained Frank Häcker, a lawyer and consultant attending the Goslar conference.
“If someone uses hashish two or three days before driving and residual traces of the drug remain in his system, in general, the driver does not pose a serious threat to traffic," said Häcker. “Can you accuse this person of driving under the influence of drugs?”
In general THC, the active ingredient in hashish, decomposes 24 hours after entering the body. “The question is whether, in such a situation, one can still accuse the driver of unlawful negligence.”
Häcker called for an acceleration of research into the effect of drugs on traffic, along with the introduction of instant drug tests, which already exist for blood alcohol testing. This would mean drug users could no longer be absolved of responsibility.
But the experts dismissed the so-called “Stuttgart Model” of revoking a driver’s license as immediate punishment for driving while on drugs. “The model is good in theory, but it has no legal basis,” argued Häcker.