It's amazing what can be achieved in the middle of a pandemic. While most of us have been preoccupied with our homes and bubbles, many politicians and officials have been preparing for the September election and the two referendums which go with it.
• The rules of cannabis: Govt releases draft legislation for how cannabis could be bought and sold
• Legalising cannabis: Supporters, opponents take swipes at each other as polls show knife-edge decision
• Government releases cannabis referendum details
Given the extreme circumstances that Covid 19 presented for the Ministry of Health, it is commendable that the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme was delivered on schedule on April 1.
This provides the basis for the licences for commercial cultivation, manufacturing and production for medicinal cannabis products in New Zealand. It also provides that GPs are able to prescribe medicinal cannabis products through a pharmacist without specialist sign off.
These products are currently limited in range, sourced from overseas, are not subsidised by Pharmac and are expensive.
The medicinal cannabis industry is being lauded as a sunrise industry in a post Covid world.
Then, last week, the Minister of Justice announced the final draft of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which will be subject to a Yes/No referendum associated with the general election in September. The Bill provides for the legal recreational use of cannabis and is quite a different beast to the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme.
It behoves us all to know what we would be voting for and to understand what the possible implications might be.
The Bill proposes that the use and purchase of cannabis will be legal from age 20, purchased from physical stores (not online), at a limit of 14g/day. There will be a complete ban on advertising, and packaging will have a mandatory health and harm minimisation message.
Consumption will be limited to private homes and specifically licenced premises.
The industry will have a Cannabis Regulatory Authority for growers, products and retailers. This will limit the size of any one commercial party and will ensure appropriate taxes are levied.
Kiwis though, will be able to grow two plants for themselves with a maximum of four plants per household, but social sharing between those of legal age will be allowed.
Protagonists suggest that cannabis legalisation will create a whole new commercial landscape much like the craft liquor industry. Be that as it may, the reality is that what is now illegal would be brought into the same general legal territory alongside alcohol as a recreational drug.
This possibility troubles road safety advocates. It is well known that cannabis consumption causes impairment and, like alcohol, if you are impaired behind the wheel, you are a danger to yourself and anyone else on the road. But, unlike alcohol, the police have not had the discretion to randomly test for drugged drivers.
This will change next year, when police will have the power to test drivers for the presence of drugs and impairing medication anywhere, anytime, just as for alcohol.
Drivers who test positive for the presence of drugs will be fined and immediately suspended from driving for a minimum of 12 hours. These drivers will also face criminal penalties if they fail a compulsory impairment test and blood tests confirm impairing levels of drugs in their system.
The question of level of impairment after cannabis consumption is not as clear as with alcohol, but it is clear that cannabis and alcohol are a lethal mix. American research in 2009 concluded that the risk of driving under the influence of both alcohol and cannabis is greater than the risk of driving under the influence of either alone.
What happens to driving behaviour after cannabis is legalised should also be part of the conversation accompanying the September referendum.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety Research released a report in January this year about the impact of cannabis on driver behaviour before and after legalisation in Washington State, which legalised cannabis in December 2012.
The data covered five years before and five years after legalisation. From 2008 to 2012, 8.8 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for cannabis. That rate doubled to 18 percent between 2013 and 2017.
The data suggests that legalising cannabis doubles the risk of a fatal crash.
Cannabis use can inhibit concentration, slow reaction times and cloud judgement. Recent cannabis use impairs the ability to drive safely. The September referendum is not just about freedom of choice, it is also about the increased risk of driving safely on our roads.
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.