• Daniel Demers

Driving while high

Driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) has drawn significant media, political, and public interest--perhaps more than any other issue lining the road towards legalization. This is not surprising given the dangers associated with impaired driving. Part of what fuels this interest is the lack of information, and the sometimes conflicting messages about the impact of legalization on road safety.

In a report published last week, the American Public Health Association reports that “[t]hree years after recreational marijuana legalization, changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization. In another report out last week the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety stated that “[l]egalizing recreational marijuana use in Colorado, Oregon and Washington has resulted in collision claim frequencies that are about 3 percent higher overall than would have been expected without legalization.”

While these two studies report little or no impact the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse reported that the crash rate for cannabis users is from two to six times more often than drivers who are not impaired.

But while the impact of legalization on DUID must be further studied, Canadians driving high is not a new issue – it is said to be getting worse. According to MADD Canada CEO Andy Murie, “Drug-impaired fatalities now exceed alcohol fatalities by 25 per cent.” MADD Canada - Drug impaired driving rising rapidly

The Federal Government should be applauded for moving early to invest in research related to roadside detection devices similar to those used for detecting alcohol. However, the challenge facing lawmakers at all levels is that issues related to Cannabis impaired driving are much more complex than alcohol impaired driving. For example it’s difficult to determine the level of THC in an individual and its relationship to level of impairment. These challenges are compounded by the lack of technology, training and research related to the enforcement of DUID laws in Canada or the US.

Many U.S. states don’t have specific laws related to driving under the influence of marijuana. However, 12 have zero tolerance laws for drug impaired driving and five have “per se” limits (a set level of THC in the bloodstream). Colorado has a “reasonable inference” limit which is similar to the “per se” approach recommended by the recent Federal Task Force on Legalization. All these systems face similar challenges including establishing a standard threshold for impairment and the processes for collecting and testing identified types of fluids. List of state laws regarding impaired driving (marijuana).

It’s clear that more research has to be done on the link between THC levels and impairment, and the development of effective roadside testing tools and procedures. There is also a need to educate Canadians about the risk of DUID. It should be noted that the Federal task force on legalization called for immediate investments in research and public education.

As Canada drives down the road of legalization, impaired driving will be the focus of increased media, political, and public attention meaning governments, police services, and our legal system will have to respond and evolve.