EXCLUSIVE Drug driving overtakes drink driving in shock report

EXCLUSIVE Drug driving overtakes drink driving: Shock report reveals the danger on Britain’s roads as 80 a day are caught high behind the wheel

  • An average of 80 motorists are caught every day but many may escape justice
  • Chief constables call for tougher sentencing and say scale of problem is hidden

Drug driving has become more prevalent than drink driving, a shock police report reveals today.

An average of 80 motorists are caught every day but many may escape justice because of delays in processing blood tests.

And for the first time since drug driving was made an offence in 2015 the number of prosecutions has fallen. The report from the National Police Chiefs’ Council found that:

  • Drivers can be let off because it takes four to five months to process test results and officers have only six months to prosecute;
  • They are powerless to keep drug- drive suspects off the road while they await results and one was caught another eight times in the intervening period;

Mother was eight times legal limit 

Nicole Wheatley, 30, was eight times the drug driving limit 

A mother caught eight times over the drug driving limit complained she would struggle to do the school run after being banned from driving.

Nicole Wheatley, 30, failed a drugs test when police were called to a house following an incident involving her ex-partner.

Investigations revealed the hair stylist had earlier driven her BMW to her partner’s home in Crewe under the influence of benzoylecgonine – a breakdown product of cocaine.

Tests showed she was almost eight times the legal limit.

Wheatley, who admitted drug driving, appeared before Crewe magistrates last week and complained about her one-year driving ban for ‘unwittingly’ breaking the law.

Her lawyer said she drove her two disabled children to school and there were no public transport options.

Magistrates rejected her plea and fined her £120 with £168 in costs.

  • Some chief constables are telling officers to focus on drink driving instead due to forensic backlogs and cost issues;
  • The lab delays have caused some forces to cancel enforcement campaigns;

Spared jail after killing pedestrians 

Struck down: Jason Imi with his wife Sarah

A police officer’s son spared jail after killing two pedestrians while high on cannabis walked free from court again when he refused a drug driving test.

Max Coopey was over the drug-drive limit when he ploughed into Jason Imi and John Shackley, who were fatally injured as they were walking back from a work dinner on August 2, 2018.

But despite driving under the influence of cannabis, Coopey, then 17, was spared jail. Less than a year later he was caught hiding 126g of herbal cannabis and 2g of cannabis resin worth up to £1,000 in the bedroom of his parents’ £1million home in Ascot, Berkshire.

Difficult teenager: Max Coopey

But magistrates decided not to jail him, fining him £300 instead for possession after his lawyer claimed he was ‘self-medicating’ in the wake of the crash.

During the hearing last year, Chloe Hill, defending, described the son of two retired Scotland Yard officers as a ‘badly behaved and difficult teenager’, but said he was now on the right path to university. But in February this year, Coopey appeared before magistrates for the third time for his ‘deliberate’ failure to take a blood test to measure whether he was driving under the influence of drugs.

He was found with cannabis and ‘burner phones’ which Reading magistrates’ court heard he was dealing to fund his own drug habit.

The 21-year-old was given an 18-month community order.

  • Police are considering making convicted motorists to foot the average £500 bill to process their test.

Chief constables are calling for tougher sentencing and say the scale of the problem is being hidden because officers are deterred from testing for drugs and alcohol.

Ministry of Justice figures show that after six years of rising prosecutions, drug-drive cases have fallen 36 per cent – from 27,962 in 2021 to 17,835 last year.

At the same time police have put more drink drivers through the courts, with prosecutions increasing 16 per cent since 2020 to 33,099 cases last year.

But the NPCC report compiled following the first formal national operation to tackle drug driving concluded it was ‘more prevalent across the UK than drink driving’.

It warns: ‘Police forces have voiced that the sentencing is not stringent enough, for example if a higher dose of drugs is identified in the driver’s sample the sentence is rarely any different to a standard 12-month ban.

‘Forces have also stated when they put forward both charges to magistrates, (alcohol & drugs) the sentence is still not increased. This results in forces testing motorists for either drug or alcohol, not both. This leads to unreliable and skewed results and prevents a true reflection of this problem across the country being identified.’

The document sets out in detail the ‘challenges hindering drug-driving enforcement activity’.

The six-week national crackdown last year – called Operation Limit – saw an 18 per cent rise in arrests for drink and drug driving with 6,130 drivers caught compared with 5,186 in the same period in 2021.

On average, 80 motorists on drugs were caught every day during the operation but some of them may never face charges. Anyone who fails a drug test at the roadside must have a blood sample taken by a ‘healthcare provider’.

But it may be hours before staff are available, by which time the drugs may have left the driver’s system. Even when a sample is taken in time the report reveals that is taking ‘at least four to five months’ for blood tests to come back.

The backlog means some drivers are on the roads for months after testing positive for drugs and results may come back too late for a prosecution within the six-month time limit for cases heard in magistrates’ courts.

Another issue raised in the report is ‘significantly increased costs’ for blood tests. Experts estimate the bill for processing one is around £500, compared with 20p for a simple roadside breath test for alcohol. Police are now asking the Home Office to consider forcing convicted motorists to pay.

Ean Lewin of DTec International, which supplies roadside drug tests to all forces, said: ‘This report highlights the growing risk from drug drivers and how specialist roads policing officers need a more efficient, quicker prosecution system.

‘More specialist officers are required, a faster confirmation option of saliva for cannabis and cocaine could be taken at the roadside, processed in the laboratory and completed in a matter of days. This would mean a court appearance in the next week.’

An NPCC spokesman said: ‘There are costs associated with forensic analysis for this offence like many others and in recent years there has been pressure on the analysis capacity available to police forces which caused some delays.

‘However, because of positive and proactive engagement between the NPCC and analysis providers, we have now reached a position whereby there is significant capacity available.’

Speeding motorist high on cocaine ran down girl of six

Offender: John Owen

The mother of a six-year-old girl killed by a speeding driver high on a cocktail of drugs and drink has vowed to fight for justice after he was jailed for just six years.

John Stephen Owen, 46, was almost twice the drink and drug drive limit after taking cocaine when he lost control of his car, careered on to the other side of the road and mounted the kerb, hitting Sharlotte Naglis.

Sharlotte, who was walking home with her father, died instantly in the crash in North Staffordshire in June 2021. During his sentencing in October it emerged that Owen had previously committed a drink driving offence.

He was doing around 48mph in a 30mph zone and was on his phone just moments before the crash. Owen apologised for her death, but said he had no recollection because of a brain injury caused by the collision.

Victim: Sharlotte Naglis

He was jailed for six years and two months and handed an eight-year driving ban after pleading guilty to dangerous driving. Judge Paul Glenn told him: ‘You killed an innocent six-year-old child by driving at excessive speed, 48mph in a 30mph limit, shortly before the collision. You lost control of your car while under the influence of alcohol and cocaine. In each case, close to double the proscribed limit.’

The victim’s mother Claire Reynolds, 37, was disgusted at the sentence, walking out of court in fury. She said: ‘It’s an insult. He won’t even serve half of the length of Sharlotte’s life.’

Her MP appealed to have the sentence reviewed as ‘unduly lenient’ but this was rejected. In November Ms Reynolds vowed to fight on.

So what is the drug-driving ‘limit’? 

Drug driving carries a possible sentence of six months in prison, a minimum one-year driving ban and an unlimited fine.

This is the same penalty as drink driving, but it is harder for drivers to measure whether they are over the legal limit because it varies by drug – which is why blood tests are used to provide an exact reading.

It is impossible to provide a rule of thumb for what dosage meets the threshold as it differs from person to person and is affected by variables such as eating, water intake and exercise.

A ‘zero tolerance’ approach is taken to illegal drugs, with the exact legal limit for cannabis being 2 micrograms per litre of blood, while for cocaine and amphetamines it is 10 micrograms per litre of blood.

There are different limits set for prescription drugs, for example the threshold for diazepam is 550 micrograms per litre of blood.

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