On October 16, 2018, the federal government legalized recreational use of marijuana. While Bill Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, is a federal law, each province decides how marijuana is sold, used, policed and how abuse of marijuana is punished.
There is much concern within the general public that the legalization of cannabis will lead to an increase in motor vehicle accidents. Many people feel that marijuana use does not affect their ability to drive. This is just wrong. Marijuana use is second only to the use of alcohol as a leading cause of automobile accidents. “Drugged driving” has been found to result in more driving fatalities.
The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) conducted a study to raise awareness of the dangers of drug impaired driving. It found that 77% of those surveyed were concerned about road safety following the legalization of marijuana. Moreover, 72% perceived that marijuana users drove worse than sober drivers. However, alarmingly, 17% felt that marijuana users preformed the same or even better than sober drivers.
An estimated 1.4 million Ontarians have driven while under the influence of cannabis. Just over one-third of those surveyed have used marijuana before driving in the past three months. This is very concerning as it means there is almost 5,400 drivers on Ontario roads daily under the influence of marijuana. Yet, as of May, only 733 officers had completed specialized training to detect those driving under the inference of marijuana nationwide. At the current rate of training, only 2,000 law enforcement officers will be trained to detect cannabis use in the next 5 years.
There is no equivalent to the “breathalyzer test” for marijuana use and consumption of marijuana is not necessarily obvious. While there is a noticeable smell when it is smoked, if a vaporizer is used the scent is not nearly as pronounced. THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, can also be consumed in candy form, baked into cookies or “brownies,” or added to other food. The federal government recently approved a roadside saliva test to detect THC, but its accuracy (and constitutionality) have already been questioned. Its use may open the door to years of court challenges. Marijuana’s effects also vary from person to person. Frequent users of marijuana may develop a tolerance to THC’s effects. Research has clearly demonstrated that people having blood-alcohol concentrations greater than 0.08 percent suffer from impaired judgment, co-ordination and reaction time while driving. Setting an appropriate cut-off point for THC in the blood that links to observable impairment is more contentious. So, how will the abuse of marijuana and the operation of a motor vehicle be discouraged and punished?
The Canadian government is promoting a “Don’t Drive High” campaign aimed at youth. And, the Ontario Government recently toughened its laws with respect to impaired drivers using both alcohol and marijuana. The Province will have a zero-tolerance policy towards novice and commercial drivers who use marijuana, and the penalties for marijuana impaired driving will be the same as for drunk driving.
Nevertheless, now that legalized recreational marijuana is a reality, we in the legal community are paying close attention to how well these regulations, enforcement and penalties work. As personal injury lawyers, we will be especially interested to see if serious accidents mount if marijuana use increases.