Not enough information for cannabis referendum vote

At next year’s general election, the New Zealand public will vote yes or no to a referendum question around legalising recreational cannabis use throughout the country.

That vote will focus on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, a draft of which was released by Justice Minister Andrew Little on 3 December.

The road freight transport industry has serious misgivings about this draft Bill. It is woefully incomplete, dangerously naïve, too narrow in focus, and lacking in critical detail. It is too incomplete to vote on and people need the full picture before such a vote.

For safety sensitive industries such as road freight transport, we cannot see how this Bill will in any way correlate to the strict health and safety legislation in New Zealand. In fact, in the section (8) that outlines the “Relationship between Act and other enactments”, there is no mention of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, which holds employers and Boards strictly liable for the health and safety of their workers.

The road is the truck drivers’ workplace, so we care a lot about road safety. We cannot see how this Bill will in any way contribute to safer roads, which is allegedly of critical importance to this Government. We already have a situation where the number of people being killed by drug impaired drivers on New Zealand roads eclipses those killed by drivers above the alcohol limit.

Indeed, in releasing the Bill, Minister Little was quoted as saying that exploring the risks of drugged driving and workplace impairment would be pushed back until after the referendum vote.

That is not good enough. People should be given all the facts before they vote on this Bill.

International research shows that where cannabis is legalised, consumption is higher and new users enter the market. So potentially, we have more drugged drivers on the road.

Deloitte has done a number of reports on Canada, which has legalised the use of recreational cannabis nationwide. They make for interesting reading.

The Deloitte report, A society in transition, an industry ready to bloom, surveyed current and likely cannabis consumers across Canada in early 2018, to gain insights into how consumption levels might change, what kinds of products consumers would be interested in, and how and where they’d like to purchase. They found that purchases by current and likely frequent cannabis consumers were set to rise up to 22 percent after legalisation.

The report says: “We see a more significant change in behaviour among less frequent consumers, both current and likely. After legalization, purchase frequency in this group is poised to raise 121 percent”.

It is incredibly naïve to believe that where there are commercial imperatives, anyone involved in making money from cannabis sales will in any way be focused on reducing consumption.

Research in the United States shows an increase in road crashes in states that have legalised marijuana, compared to states where marijuana is not legal. There is a need for more research in this area, but it is important to note. This evidence is incongruous with the New Zealand Government’s Road to Zero road safety strategy.

We don’t believe the Government is giving the full picture of the direct and unintended consequences of the Bill. Some big impact questions for safety sensitive industries need to be answered, particularly around liability when WorkSafe fines for workplace accidents are now well into six figures.

There are too many unanswered questions and after the referendum, that this current Government would consider binding, is too late for those answers. That’s what they call closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Delivering the right message on drugs and driving

Governments past have dealt to deaths on New Zealand roads caused by drinking and driving with a comprehensive system of testing, evidence gathering and punishment. This has been backed by extensive, and expensive, advertising campaigns that resonate through all communities. Who doesn’t remember the brilliant “you know I can’t grab your ghost chips” drink-drive campaign of 2011? It became a pop culture phenomenon. Advertising is still centred around “mateship” and a collective responsibility to stop people drinking and driving. No New Zealander can get in a car after drinking too much and not know they are doing something wrong.

It is time for this Government to apply the same principles to the serious issue of drugged drivers. The number of deaths caused by drugged drivers – 71 last year and 88 the year before – means there must be better testing to get these people off our roads. Testing for drugs is not always undertaken and so these figures will be only the tip of the iceberg and they only reflect deaths, not injuries.

The number of people being killed by drug impaired drivers is higher than by drivers above the alcohol limit. Something has got to change.

So far, a soft approach is being taken, possibly because of Government plans to decriminalise marijuana.

If decriminalising marijuana is to be seriously discussed by New Zealanders next year, the Government is going to need to act on a regime that tests road users appropriately. Employers and workers in the safety sensitive industries, such as road transport and handling dangerous goods, need a system by which they can monitor and enforce workplace safety, or they will have WorkSafe to deal with. Without consistency and standards, Kiwis might have little confidence in voting for anything other than the status quo.

It is important to note that truck drivers are in the unique position of sharing their workplace – New Zealand roads – with the public. While the road transport industry follows workplace health and safety laws to ensure drivers are not drug impaired, with extensive testing regimes including pre-employment, random and post incident/accident drug testing, there is no guarantee that those they are sharing the road with won’t be impaired by drugs as there is no adequate testing regime for them. There needs to be a standard approach to testing all drivers for impairment as a result of drug use.

In an accident where a car versus a truck, the car invariably comes off second best. Media headlines focus on the truck, but much of the time, the blame for the accident falls with the car driver. While people in cars have the misconception that trucks are dangerous, truck drivers see every day dangerous car driving.

The Government needs to change its single-minded road safety focus, which is tunnel vision on speed and getting vehicles off the road, and take a holistic look at all the other contributing factors to accidents, one of which is drivers impaired by drugs.

In this area there seems to be more sympathy for the rights of drug-using drivers than on the safety of those who share the road with them, or the rights of those they kill or injure. Time for testing, cost of testing, and “pressure on the system” to come up with any kind of punishment are being put up as barriers to doing anything.

The Road Transport Forum fully supports a comprehensive roadside drug screening policy as a first line tool for early detection of impaired, or potentially impaired, drivers. This should without question, be part of an overall aspiration to mitigate risk on New Zealand roads of injury and death caused by drugged drivers.

Roadside drug testing should include the Compulsory Impairment Test (touch your nose, walk a straight line, stand on one leg), screening with some of the new oral technology and saliva wipes, and where necessary, an evidentiary blood test. This should be backed by the same advertising attention that has been paid to telling all New Zealanders that driving while drug impaired is dangerous and results in loss of lives.

Let’s get serious about road safety.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum