Guarding Against Risk
Education and Regulation to Prevent Impaired Driving
Although it has only been a few months since recreational cannabis became legal in Canada, plans for its legalization and regulation go back to the federal election of 2015, with a Liberal Party of Canada campaign pledge to “remove marijuana consumption and incidental possession from the Criminal Code, and create new, stronger laws to punish more severely those who provide it to minors.” Other commitments were to crack down on those who would continue to sell it outside of legal, regulated, and taxed means and anyone operating a motor vehicle while under the influence.
While many applauded its legalization this past October, some remain worried about the implications of cannabis users operating machinery or driving while under the influence of a drug that is one of the most widely used substances in the world and potentially putting themselves and others at risk. In Canada, the federal and provincial governments and organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD Canada) are reinforcing the message: just because recreational marijuana is now legal does not suddenly mean it is okay to drive under the influence.
MADD has focused on the devastation caused by drunk drivers through its annual Red Ribbon campaign for over three decades and is concerned that the legalization of marijuana has resulted in a more relaxed attitude toward cannabis and driving. Unfortunately, some men and women are under the mistaken belief cannabis is somehow better than alcohol while driving.
Since those under the age of thirty-five are the biggest users of cannabis, MADD takes its annual Red Ribbon Campaign to high schools. In late November, as reported in the Perth Courier, one of the organization’s school field representatives Martin Savoie addressed a high school gym audience, stating that alcohol “is slowly being replaced by cannabis.” Savoie added, “Because it became legal does not mean it suddenly became safe.”
One report from Dalhousie University’s Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Acute cannabis consumption and motor vehicle collision risk: systematic review of observational studies and meta-analysis, was conducted to determine if drivers who used marijuana were at greater risk of being involved in a motor vehicle collision. The study determined: “Driving under the influence of cannabis was associated with a significantly increased risk of motor vehicle collisions compared with unimpaired driving,” and concluded, “Acute cannabis consumption is associated with an increased risk of a motor vehicle crash, especially for fatal collisions. This information could be used as the basis for campaigns against drug impaired driving, developing regional or national policies to control acute drug use while driving, and raising public awareness.”
Motor vehicle deaths due to impairment from drugs or alcohol are completely preventable. Research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 2015 report ‘Traffic Safety Facts: Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk’ has found driving under the influence of cannabis increases the risk of a collision by up to 25 percent. A significant study of the urine tests of French drivers involved in fatal accidents detected cannabis in 6.8 percent of samples and 40 percent of those drivers were also over the legal alcohol level.
In July of 2018, a report issued by the western state’s Division of Criminal Justice, Driving Under the Influence of Drugs and Alcohol, revealed that, in 2016, 27,244 case filings resulted in at least one charge of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Of these, 3,946 cases “were screened for the presence of cannabinoids, and 73.1 percent of these (n=2,885) were confirmed for cannabis metabolites, including the psychoactive component of cannabis, Delta-9 THC. Of the 2,885 THC confirmation screens, approximately half (47.5 percent, n=1,369) were at or above the legal 5 ng/mL permissible inference level.”
These statistics and others led to a March 26, 2018 newspaper article by the Denver Post, which talked about an increasing number of automobile deaths involving marijuana. In 2016, the Post reports that there were 77 fatalities out of a total of 608 fatalities on Colorado roads in which the driver tested positive for THC; the Post discovered 51 of the 77 dead had levels of Delta 9 THC above the state’s legal limit for impairment.
And although marijuana-related automobile deaths are far fewer than those involving alcohol, according to the Post – with eight percent of drivers in fatal accidents having THC in their systems, compared to twenty-six percent of drivers having consumed alcohol – Colorado’s government is doing what it can to make those numbers stop climbing, including working with the state’s marijuana industry to inform drivers about the risks of getting behind the wheel while high on marijuana.
In late 2018, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) study revealed that in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada – states which allow recreational marijuana – highway crashes are on the rise by six percent. American Journal of Public Health’s report ‘Crash Fatality Rates After Recreational Marijuana Legalization in Washington and Colorado,’ however, noted that “motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization.” Clearly, more research is needed.
One of the many issues surrounding driving while under the influence is testing. Police have the ability to determine how much alcohol a driver has consumed through technology, and teaching officers to detect impairment, including jerky eye movements, unsteady balance and walking. Officers can also use a breathalyzer to estimate blood alcohol content (BAC). However, testing for marijuana is not as straightforward. Back when marijuana was illegal in Colorado, blood or urine tests were taken, and if any cannabinoids were found – regardless of the level – the driver broke the law, period. This is not the case today, as there is disagreement about what constitutes impairment.
Unlike alcohol, THC does not metabolize in the same way in everybody, which makes it very difficult to determine impairment. Adding another wrinkle to the issue is how cannabis is ingested, since it can be smoked, eaten, drunk as a tea, vaped, and consumed through other methods. Depending on the way it is concentrated and taken into the body, it may remain in the bloodstream for shorter or longer periods, long after it has stopped having any impairing effect.
As is often the case, it is difficult for changing laws and technology to keep pace with one another, and there is the issue of cost. CBC News contacted law enforcement experts who estimated “the cost of the disposable saliva swabs to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $20 to $40 each,” although this will be added to the cost of the oral fluid testing devices to be used by officers.
The province of Ontario is setting up websites about cannabis legislation and reminding citizens of the minimum age of nineteen, the risks of driving under the influence, and the penalties including immediate license suspension and possible jail time and a criminal record. However, the recent ‘National Cannabis Survey’ from Statistics Canada found that “About one in seven (14 percent) cannabis users with a driver’s licence report driving within two hours of using.”
The public has good reason to be concerned about drivers who might be under the influence, since it alters reaction times, spatial perceptions, and cognitive skills vital to interacting with other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and traffic signals, potentially putting lives in danger. Although data is still coming in, drivers must realize they cannot determine their own degree of impairment, and marijuana in the system could put their lives and those of others at risk.