illustration: Marco Cibola

Marijuana and Driving: Taking the High Road?

By Robin Schroffel

Canada is on the cusp of significant changes as the federal government considers legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Although Alberta hasn’t experienced the recent boom in dispensaries seen in B.C. and Ontario, the province already has one federally licensed producer currently serving some 3,000 medical marijuana users—with more likely to follow when new legislation is introduced in spring 2017. Legalizing marijuana is a complicated issue on many fronts, not least of which are those connected to marijuana and driving.

AMA doesn’t choose sides: We focus our attention on marijuana and traffic safety. As Canada moves closer to legalization, a recent study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) offers a timely reminder that with the impending changes to cannabis laws, attention to road safety issues is vital.

To date, five American jurisdictions have legalized recreational and medical marijuana use, while another 20 states have legalized it for medical use and 20 more are considering doing so this year. Washington went legal in 2012, and research conducted in the state between 2010 and 2014 found that the percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes who’d recently used marijuana more than doubled between 2013 and 2014 (rising from eight to 17 percent). In other words, one in six drivers involved in a fatal crash had marijuana in their bloodstream.

Closer to home, a 2015 report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse shows that among young drivers, it’s more common to drive after cannabis use than after drinking; that marijuana use impairs the cognitive and motor abilities necessary for driving and doubles the risk of crash involvement; and that after alcohol, marijuana is the most commonly detected substance among drivers who die in crashes.

It’s important to note that a growing body of evidence suggests marijuana impairment isn’t as straightforward as alcohol intoxication. The level of tetrahydrocannabinol—a.k.a. THC, the main psychoactive component in marijuana—in the bloodstream that results in intoxication is not yet known. And the drug affects individuals differently: One person with a high amount of THC in their system may not be impaired, while another with low levels may be unable to safely operate a vehicle. As such, limits like those for alcohol have not been introduced in Canada.

Exactly how marijuana use affects drivers is not completely understood. It’s clear that more research needs to be done to gain a thorough understanding of the effects of marijuana use on drivers, but also to learn how to reliably detect impairment and to develop consistent and fair guidelines in order to ensure road safety.

In Canada, new technologies are being examined. The RCMP is considering roadside saliva screening devices, like those used in Europe and Australia, to detect the presence of THC. Alberta law enforcement agencies are taking steps to ensure officers are able to recognize impairment through behaviour, with some undergoing additional drug-recognition training.

AMA and CAA strongly advocate for more such research and testing. We are currently conducting our own study, and we’ll use the results to better understand marijuana legalization and road safety. This study will provide a launching point for collaboration with the federal government to ensure that road safety is kept at the forefront of the legalization issue.

Public education will play a key role in raising awareness about issues connected to driving and marijuana, just as it does in drinking and driving. AMA recognizes the importance of these impending changes in Canadian law and we will be here to make sure road safety doesn’t take a back seat.