Is marijuana-impaired driving an impending possibility?

The Trudeau government said it hopes to introduce marijuana legalization in legislation by the summer.

Many Canadians believe this move is long overdue, but there are still precautions and safeguards that need to be implemented to avoid potential risks—including the possibility of an increase in stoned drivers on the roads.

But what are the laws surrounding marijuana-impaired driving?

Drugs and driving

Provisions about drug-impaired driving are found at both the provincial and federal levels of the law, according to Eugene Oscapella, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa (U of O) and an expert in policies and laws related to illegal drugs.

At the federal level, section 253 of the Criminal Code of Canada prohibits driving or operating any vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs—marijuana is classified as a drug.

In Ontario, drug-impared driving is also illegal under the Highway Traffic Act. Section 48 of this Act is what allows the police to temporarily suspend a provincial driver’s license if they have reason to believe the driver is impaired by drugs and alcohol.

A major issue with prosecuting someone for drugged driving has to do with how challenging it is to detect, according to Andra Smith, a psychology professor at U of O and an expert on how marijuana, or cannabis, impacts cognitive functioning.

She said there is currently limited enforcement of marijuana-impaired driving because it is tough to detect in one’s system.

“There is no clear and easy way to assess marijuana intoxication roadside, or use over a period of time,” Smith said.

There is currently no roadside procedure to test a driver believed to be impaired by marijuana—unlike the breathalyzer, which measures one’s blood alcohol level, Smith added.

Instead, police are considered drug recognition experts and can subject a driver to futher drug testing, as they are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of drug impairment, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that police can be used as expert testimony in drug-impaired driving trials.

Public Safety Canada also reported in November that they expect to see an increase in lab samples being tested for marijuana, as police officers look for stoned drivers during random roadside screening.

“There is a lot of work right now trying to figure this out,” Smith said. “Marijuana stays in the body for up to 30 days, but no one really knows how to define being intoxicated. Doses, strains, previous exposure all play a role, so it is difficult.”

How does marijuana impair driving?

Marijuana negatively impacts one’s ability to focus, process information, control motor co-ordination and reaction time, which causes lane weaving, divided attention, impaired task performance, and reduced critical tracking test performance, according to Smith.

“Drivers who use cannabis have been shown to compensate by driving slower, but have reduced control when there is increased task complexity,” she said.

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, in 2010, 34.2 per cent of drivers who died in road crashes were found with marijuana in their systems, which is slighly less than the 39.1 per cent of drivers who had been drinking.

What are the social perceptions of driving high?

The biggest challenge with the impending legalization of marijuana lies in changing the societal perception around marijuana-impaired driving, according to Oscapella.

“I think we’ve managed over the past 30 years or so with alcohol-impaired driving to convince most people that it’s stupid, it’s socially unacceptable, and wrong to drive while you’re impaired by alcohol,” Oscapella said. “Nobody is going to walk into the office or classroom and say ‘God, I was blitzed on the weekend and I was too drunk to walk so I had to drive.’ When I was going to law school 40 years ago, people would say things like that and laugh. Now, if somebody said something like that they’d be looked at like an idiot.”

A criminology and law student at Carleton University who spoke under condition of anonymity, said they agree there should be the same social responsibility for driving while high as there is for drunk driving.

“There’s an idea among stoners or just casual smokers that it doesn’t impair you like alcohol does,” they said. “I find it ridiculous when people claim . . . that they are better while stoned because they are more careful. Although it may be true that they focus more on the road, oftentimes this can be what leads them to getting into an accident. While stoned you get so fixated on what you are doing that the world around you seems to disappear, in my opinion. This obviously is extremely dangerous while driving.”

The student said there is a stigma surrounding drunk driving that isn’t associated with driving while high.

“A lot of my friends drive while high,” they said. “There’s much less of a stigma or sense of wrongdoing [for driving high] than if you were to drive drunk.”

How will marijuana-impaired driving be prevented?

Other than imparting social responsiblity upon the public, Oscapella said there should be a zero-tolerance policy for driving with marijuana in one’s system.

“You’re not allowed to have any alcohol in your system whatsoever, [and] they could do this with cannabis. They could say any amount of cannabis detected in your blood or saliva—because that would indicate more recent consumption—would automatically disqualify you from driving, and you would lose your license for 30 [or] 90 days,” Oscapella said.

Sarah MacFarlane, a first-year journalism and humanities student at Carleton, said she believes the laws surrounding drugged driving are fine the way they are.

But she said there must be more roadside stops to test for drug-impaired driving, especially in rural communities.

“I live in the country and so many people [drive high] without getting caught. It seems that when the driver is caught, it’s because they’ve been in a collision and it’s already too late,” MacFarlane said.

Dealing with impaired drivers on Carleton’s campus

Brian Billings, the assistant director of  the Department of University Safety, said there have been documented instances in the past where Ottawa Police have been called to Carleton’s campus to deal with people trying to operate a vehicle while inebriated, in order to penalize these individuals under the Criminal Code.

Some suspensions have also been given to students caught driving while drunk on campus, he added.

But there have been no recent documentations of students caught driving while under the influence of marijuana.

Billings said punishments for those who choose to drive while high on Carleton’s campus “would be the same if you were driving down Bronson Avenue or any other street or highway.”

“It’s a Criminal Code charge and you could face the same penalties whether it’s on a private road or public street,” he said.

Driving while under the influence of any drug is greatly discouraged by Campus Safety, according to Billings.

Billings said if people are getting high, “they shouldn’t drive.”

“It doesn’t really matter [if it’s marijuana or alcohol], it’s still unsafe,” he said. “If you’re high or drunk, the last place you should be is behind the wheel of a vehicle. Make the right call—call a friend, or use public transportation.” 

– Graphics by Christophe Young