Medical marijuana, relaxing pot laws could pose public safety risk: experts

Watch above: Roadside breathalyzer tests are common across the country, but the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving wants roadside drug testing, to prevent impaired driving. Jacques Bourbeau reports.

OTTAWA — As federal leaders talk about potentially loosening pot laws, and more patients take advantage of medical marijuana, some experts are warning Canadian roads could become more dangerous.

While quick and effective tests exist for determining whether someone is above the legal alcohol limit, that isn’t the case for marijuana.

“I think the overall sentiment is that this is a major road-safety issue,” said Dr. Chris Simpson, president of the Canadian Medical Association. “How are we going to approach this potential new environment where we have medically-sanctioned marijuana?”

The Conservative government has for some time said it is considering allowing police officers to ticket people caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of pursuing charges. And although Conservatives are staunchly against legalizing marijuana, that is what Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has advocated. His plan would include controlling the popular recreational drug in much the same way governments in Canada control liquor.

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The “best scientific advice” Simpson said he has indicates one joint could render a person unfit to drive for five hours.

Combine that with an estimate from the University of Western Ontario that each year 20 million vehicle trips are made after a driver used weed, and a potentially grim image begins to emerge.

Over the last decade, Canadians have increasingly been getting behind the wheel after using drugs, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Ingesting pot has several effects on the nervous system that can decrease attention and reaction times, and result in poor speed maintenance, research from the non-profit organization indicated.

And while the organization said impaired driving charges (for both alcohol-and drug- consumption) in Canada declined between 2008 and 2012, they warned that potential changes to pot laws could reverse the trend.

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After Colorado commercialized medical marijuana in 2009, the proportion of fatal car accidents involving at least one driver under the influence of pot “increased dramatically,” according to research from the University of Colorado released in May.

“Are we prepared? No, we’re not,” said Andrew Murie, chief executive officer at MADD, citing research indicating the number of drug-impaired and alcohol-impaired drivers is very similar.

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Arrests, however, are considerably lopsided, with 60 people arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol for every one arrested for drug impairments, he said.

“The current tools for police are just totally inadequate,” Murie said. “We know alcohol-impaired drivers drive because they don’t think they’ll get caught. It’s even worse with drug-impaired drivers because they know police don’t have the tools to catch them.”

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Traditional technologies for testing whether an individual has imbibed pot —blood and urine tests, for example — is lengthy and expensive, though scientists have been developing more simple saliva tests, which MADD supports.

As it stands, the method for charging someone suspected of driving under the influence of drugs is long, convoluted and sometimes invasive.

Six years ago, a change to the Criminal Code granted police authority to demand drivers undergo a coordination test called a standardized field sobriety test.

Should the driver fail the test, the officer can send them to a police station for more thorough testing. If the expert overseeing that test concludes the motorist is on drugs, they can order a fluid sample for confirmation.

Some emerging technologies, however, might help officers in the field get quicker results.

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A former RCMP officer in British Columbia, for example, co-invented a hand-held breathalyser that can detect THC, weed’s psychoactive component.

The Cannabix Breathalyzer will “look and feel like an alcohol breathalyser,” said Rav Mlait, the company’s chief executive officer.

Once someone blows into the device, the breath test is applied to a filter which determines whether that individual has THC flowing through their body.

The benefit? The results are instantaneous.

Mlait said he and his colleagues are currently using a prototype and developing a beta version of the device, which they will eventually present to police forces as well as Justice Minister Peter MacKay.

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