Medicinal Cannabis and Driving in New Zealand: A 2024 Update for Patients

New Zealand has seen a significant increase in medicinal cannabis prescriptions since the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act took effect in 2020. However, many patients remain uncertain about the rules and regulations surrounding cannabis use and driving.

In this article, we explore the current situation, focusing on the legal implications and potential risks for medicinal cannabis patients who drive.

Quick Overview of Medicinal Cannabis and Driving

    1. It is against the law to drive while impaired by taking any impairing substance (including prescription medicines and over the counter and pharmacist-only medicines). 
    2. Recent changes to the legislation include new lower limits for infringements, and tougher penalties for drivers found to be driving while impaired. 
    3. As part of the new legislation, police can conduct random roadside drug testing and use oral fluid testing kits to determine if someone is impaired by drugs (including THC) while driving. The ‘tolerance level’ in the new legislation is set at 1ng for THC and the ‘high risk level’ is set at 3ng. 
    4. Recently, however, this part of the new legislation has been pushed back as the appropriate testing device hasn’t been found.
 

New Zealand has long upheld strict laws against drug-impaired driving, as set out in the Land Transport Act 1998. In an effort to strengthen these laws and further ensure the safety of all road users, the Land Transport (Drug Driving) Amendment Act was passed in 2022. 

The primary goal of the new Land Transport (Drug Driving) Amendment Act is to reduce the number of drug-impaired drivers on New Zealand’s roads and, as a result, enhance overall road safety. To achieve this goal, the bill grants law enforcement officers additional tools and methods for detecting drug-impaired drivers.

This includes the use of saliva-based drug tests to screen drivers for the presence of drugs, such as THC — the main psychoactive component of cannabis. 

If a saliva test is positive, the driver is then subjected to an evidential oral fluid test or a blood test for confirmation. Depending on the severity of the offence and the individual’s driving history, penalties can range from fines and demerit points to loss of driving privileges and even imprisonment.

No Difference Between Recreational and Medicinal Cannabis Use 

It is important to note that the new legislation does not differentiate between recreational and medicinal cannabis use. Consequently, medicinal cannabis patients are subject to the same drug-impaired driving laws and penalties as other drivers. 

March 2024 – Roadside Drug Testing Announced

On May 20, 2024, the government announced its plans to introduce legislation to enable roadside drug testing. According to a press release, the new legislation will give Police the power to randomly screen drivers for drugs at the roadside using oral fluid testing devices, similar to drink-driving enforcement. The legislation is expected to be introduced to Parliament by the middle of the year and passed towards the end of 2024.

March 2023 – Roadside Drug Testing Postponed 

In March 2023, the planned new implementation of roadside drug testing using saliva test kits encountered a significant hurdle. The required saliva testing devices, integral to the execution of the new provisions outlined in the new legislation, were unexpectedly unavailable. As a result, the full implementation of random roadside saliva tests has been postponed until the necessary devices can be procured and distributed to law enforcement agencies across the country.

Compulsory Impairment Test (CIT) 

In the absence of saliva testing devices, law enforcement officers continue to rely on the compulsory impairment test (CIT) as their primary tool for assessing drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs, including cannabis. The CIT is a series of behavioural and physical assessments designed to detect signs of drug-induced impairment, such as poor coordination, balance issues, and difficulties in following instructions. 

Should a driver fail to satisfactorily complete the CIT, law enforcement officers may request a blood test to confirm the presence of drugs in the driver’s system. A positive blood test

may lead to charges for drug-impaired driving, with penalties ranging from fines and demerit points to licence suspension or revocation, and even imprisonment, depending on the severity of the offence and the individual’s driving history. 

Potential Risks of Driving Whilst Taking Medicinal Cannabis 

  1. Cognitive and Motor Skills Impairment – Medicinal cannabis can affect cognitive and motor skills, such as reaction time, decision-making, and coordination. These impairments may increase the risk of accidents while driving. 
  2. Variability in Effects – The effects of medicinal cannabis can vary between individuals and even between different doses or products. This variability makes it challenging to predict how a patient will react to cannabis while driving. 
  3. Risk of Accidents – Driving under the influence of medicinal cannabis increases the likelihood of motor vehicle accidents, putting the driver, passengers, and other road users at risk. 
  4. Legal Consequences – Driving under the influence of medicinal cannabis can result in legal consequences, such as fines, loss of driving privileges, or even imprisonment, depending on the severity of the offence and prior convictions. These consequences may have long-lasting impacts on a patient’s life and well-being.

Medicinal Cannabis Patients’ Responsibility 

It is essential for medicinal cannabis patients to be aware of the potential risks of driving while under the influence of their medication. Patients should consult with their healthcare professional to understand how cannabis may affect their ability to drive safely and adhere to recommended waiting periods before operating a vehicle. 

Worldwide Examples of Stand-Down Periods

Different countries have different guidelines for stand-down periods after using medicinal cannabis. These waiting periods aim to minimise the risk of drug-impaired driving. 

  1. Australia – In some Australian states, such as Victoria, the law does not specify a stand-down period for driving after using medicinal cannabis. However, patients are advised to wait at least four hours after inhaling or six hours after ingesting medicinal cannabis before driving. 
  2. Canada – Health Canada recommends that patients wait at least six hours after using medicinal cannabis before driving or operating heavy machinery. However, this waiting period may vary depending on the individual and the specific product used. 
  3. Germany – In Germany, the law does not set a specific waiting period for driving after using medicinal cannabis. Instead, patients are advised to consult with their healthcare professionals to determine an appropriate stand-down period based on individual factors. 
  4. United States – Laws and guidelines regarding driving after using medicinal cannabis vary by state in the United States. In some states, such as Colorado, patients are advised to wait at least six hours after using medicinal cannabis before driving. However, other states may have different recommendations or no specific guidelines.

Conclusion

As a medicinal cannabis patient in New Zealand, it is crucial to understand the legal implications and potential risks associated with driving under the influence of cannabis. While international examples of stand-down periods after using medicinal cannabis vary, consulting with your healthcare professional is the best way to determine the safest approach to using medicinal cannabis and driving.

It is essential to prioritise the safety of yourself and others on the road. Remember, impaired driving is not only a legal offence but also a significant risk to public safety.

 

FAQs

What are the potential risks of driving while taking medicinal cannabis?

The potential risks of driving while taking medicinal cannabis in New Zealand include impaired cognitive and motor skills, increased risk of accidents, legal consequences such as fines and loss of driving privileges, and long-lasting impacts on a patient’s life and well-being.

How does medicinal cannabis impair cognitive and motor skills necessary for safe driving?

Medicinal cannabis impairs cognitive and motor skills necessary for safe driving in New Zealand by affecting reaction time, decision-making, coordination, and variability in effects, making it challenging to predict how an individual will react to cannabis while driving.

Disclaimer – medicinal cannabis and CBD oil are unapproved medicines in NZ which means that there is no conclusive evidence for their effect, apart from Sativex. Many doctors do not routinely prescribe cannabis medicines. The above article was written for general educational purposes and does not intend to suggest that medicinal cannabis can be used to treat any health condition. Please consult with your healthcare provider. 

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