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Hundreds of drug driving convictions could be overturned due to testing error, police announce


Nearly 1,800 drivers facing a conviction for drug driving could have the results of their test withdrawn from evidence, due to a serious error at a testing lab used by the police. 

Problems with samples tested by Synlab Laboratory Services between April 2019 and December 2020 were identified as being defective by the company, which raised the alarm to the Forensic Science Regulator, who in turn conducted a review.  

During the time period, Synlab analysed 4,255 test samples, of which 2,181 had no detection of drugs. 296 were discontinued because the driver was not convicted.

The National Police Chief’s Council announced on Monday (29th January) that all the remaining test samples analysed by the company between those dates, which all had levels of drugs above the legal limit, will have to be withdrawn from evidence.

NPCC lead for forensics, Chief Constable Nick Dean, said “This has been a lengthy and in-depth review, which I know has been hugely challenging for those individuals who are impacted by the results.

“I would like to commend their patience while we have worked through the data. The reviews were done at such a detailed level because we are committed to ensuring evidence entering the courts is reliable.

“We take any issues seriously and wanted to ensure due diligence was taken to achieve the correct outcome.

“Synlab have been very forthcoming and open during the reviews, which we welcome.

“I want to thank all our partners who have spent many hours reviewing and working hard to try and get this right.

“It is hugely regrettable whenever evidence that has been submitted to the courts in good faith has to be withdrawn. We know that this will have significant knock-on effects for people.”

Between March and April 2015 the UK government updated drug driving laws to specifically include the most used illicit drugs, including cannabis, LSD, MDMA and five others. The legal limit to drive while under the influence of these substances was set to an almost miniscule amount.

Officers primarily test drivers at the side of the road with a device called Drugwipe, which consists of a swab that is wiped on the inside of the mouth to collect a sample of the driver’s saliva. The saliva is then tested on the spot by the officer for cocaine and cannabis. If the test produces a positive result the driver will be arrested, taken to the police station and forced to take a blood test. The blood test will produce a more accurate result, and it will be that which the Crown Prosecution Service uses as evidence if the case goes to court.

Drug driving convictions are rising fast. An analysis by the AA found that in 2021 there were 21,411 convictions, a rise of 54% year on year, although lock-down restrictions could be partially blamed for this rise. A person found guilty of drug driving in court will almost certainly lose their licence and incur points and a fine.

However, if your doctor is prescribing a substance to you that is on the list of banned drugs, such as medical cannabis, or even some ADHD medicines that contain amphetamine, you are still allowed to drive unless you have been ordered not to, or you don’t feel safe enough to. Driving while taking your prescription is not covered by drug driving laws.

The Crown Prosecution Service is contacting those drivers affected by the error in testing by Synlab Laboratories. 

“This review has taken some time, however it was crucial to ensure it was carried out meticulously with the proper resolution.

“There is no doubt this will have been a challenging time for all those affected, and I would like to praise them for their patience. It is vital that all evidence entering the courts is unfailing and it is for that reason that we ensured the review was conducted to the highest standard” said Darryl Preston, forensic lead for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. 


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