By Jenn Watt
Published Oct. 16, 2018
We’re just days away from a major policy and cultural shift in Canada as cannabis is legalized for recreational use on Wednesday.
The change is popular and brings benefits including the likely reduction in organized crime, a new funding source for the government, enhanced laws to restrict the sale to kids, and removing the prospect of overly punitive charges for those possessing the drug.
However, despite the benefits, there are still gaps in knowledge about both the positives and negatives of pot.
Because marijuana was prohibited for so long, there has been no concerted effort to provide solid, reliable information to the public about its uses, benefits and drawbacks. Much like an abstinence-only education, there was no good reason to tell people how long THC remains in your system, what pot could be safely used for, and what to avoid.
But by far the most perplexing gap in general knowledge is the effect of smoking and driving – something that has been taught, but isn’t sinking in enough.
It’s still common for people to get behind the wheel while high because of a persistent myth that it’s safe – or safer than alcohol – to do so.
MADD Canada offers sobering statistics from 2014 that show in Canada, “based on testing of fatally-injured drivers, it may be estimated that 1,273 (55.4 per cent) of these [road collision] deaths resulted from crashes in which an individual was positive for alcohol and/or drugs.”
Of those, nearly 27 per cent of deaths occurred in crashes involving individuals testing positive for drugs alone.
“Cannabis, the most commonly found drug, is present in almost half of the drug-positive fatal crashes,” MADD Canada’s website states.
In a recent survey of marijuana users by Public Safety Canada, 28 per cent reported having operated a vehicle while under the influence. Four in 10 of those people said they thought it was less risky to drive after smoking pot than after drinking alcohol.
Clearly we have an education problem here.
Though some people claim they focus better on driving while high, for the record, drugs slow reaction times, reduce ability to focus on the road, affect precision of motor skills, impair short-term memory and interfere with the ability to quickly make a decision.
The silver lining is that attitudes can and do change.
Rates of alcohol-related crash deaths have dropped dramatically over the last few decades from a high of 60 per cent in 1982 to the mid- to low-30 per cent range in the 2000s.
(MADD Canada estimates more than 43,000 lives were saved between 1982 and 2014 due to reductions in drinking and driving.)
Enforcement will have to play a central role in reducing the numbers of drug-impaired drivers on the roads, but confusion around the varied effects of THC from person to person and the equipment available to police for drug screening is going to make things tricky, at least at first.
The best bet is to double-down on public awareness.
The statistics are clear: drug impairment leads to car crashes – too many of them fatal. Now it’s time to drive that message home.