With the federal government committed to legalizing recreational marijuana next spring, a recent survey suggests 61 per cent of Albertans believe the move will lead to more dangerous roads.
The survey, conducted by the Canadian Automobile Association, also suggests 63 per cent of Canadians – and 57 per cent of Albertans – predict an increase in impaired driving once marijuana is legalized in Canada. The federal government is set to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana in spring 2017.
Of the Albertans who took the survey, 22 per cent said they think police are adequately prepared for the change.
“We need to make sure that road safety is a top priority as marijuana is legalized,” Jeff Walker, vice-president of public affairs for CAA National, said.
“This is clearly a key issue for Canadians, and they are right to be worried.”
Sixty-one per cent of Canadians, and 59 per cent of Albertans, said marijuana is as much a threat, or greater, than alcohol when it comes to getting behind the wheel. Nearly three quarters of Canadians (73 per cent) and Albertans (72 per cent) stated they believe marijuana use impairs a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle.
“Unlike alcohol, where a tried-and-tested approach to measuring blood alcohol concentration offers an accurate read on impairment, the effects of marijuana can be difficult to quantify,” Jeff Kasbrick, VP of government and stakeholder relations with the Alberta Motor Association, said.
A 2015 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — which the U.S. government agency called “the most precisely controlled study of its kind yet conducted” — found that marijuana smokers had only a minimally higher risk of being involved in a traffic accident than sober drivers. The 20-month-long survey of more than 10,000 Virginia Beach, California, drivers found there was no “significant increased risk of crash involvement” from cannabis use.
The largest population-based study, involving nine European Union countries in 2010, also found the traffic accident risk from pot impairment was “not statistically significant.”
“Drivers positive for THC were estimated to be at elevated risk (1–3 times that of sober drivers),” said an NHTSA review of the research, while the same study found alcohol-impaired drivers had elevated crash risks of between 20 and 200 times that of sober drivers.
That’s not to say the risk is zero.
“Performance deficits (for drivers) have been found in tracking, reaction time, visual function, concentration, short-term memory, and divided attention,” said the 2012 research cited by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
In Canada in 2014 there were 37 impaired charges laid for alcohol for every one laid for drugs.
The CAA, in partnership with the AMA, is calling on the federal government to improve measures to recognize drug-impaired driving. The association also wants to see dedicated funding for public education campaigns on the dangers of driving while impaired.
“CAA is also looking for clear and meaningful laws that discourage Canadians from choosing to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana and enhanced resources to support law enforcement so Canadians take the law seriously.”
Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley recently travelled to Denver, Colorado to research policies around legalized marijuana and discuss best practices with American officials.
Ganley said she’s not surprised to hear Albertans are concerned. She said traffic safety is also a concern for the government.
“It’s one of our primary concerns as we move forward with this project, to ensure that roads are kept safe,” she said Monday.
“Currently it’s the case that driving impaired, whether by alcohol or by another drug, is illegal. With respect to impairment by a drug as opposed to by alcohol, a lot of that, the prosecutions are done by way of an impaired charge. It’s basically based on the observations of the officers,” she said Monday.
“It’s a little bit more challenging than an impaired by alcohol case and that’s just because an alcohol impaired case, we know what the level of impairment is and we have a method to test for that very easily. But the tools still exist in the criminal code to prosecute drug-impaired driving right now.”
Ganley said while it would be ideal to have a method by which to test for drug impairment, the “science hasn’t advanced to that point.” She said the government will work with law enforcement agencies across the province in order to figure out the best way to address the concerns.
“When I was down in Colorado I had the opportunity to meet with the attorney general down there and she was very helpful and informative,” she said.
“One of the things she pointed out was that they had sent prosecutors essentially to train their front-line police officers to deal with these sorts of charges so that they knew how best to record their recollections and what the law in the situation was.”
Colorado legalized marijuana more than two years ago. A document obtained by The Canadian Press earlier this year said the number of marijuana-related traffic deaths spiked 32 per cent in Colorado the first year after cannabis was legalized.
In October, Senate opposition leader Claude Carignan introduced a bill aimed at beefing up the ability of police to screen drivers they suspect are high.
The bill, which passed second reading in the Senate, would allow for spot saliva testing if a police officer has reasonable grounds to suspect a driver has drugs in their system.
According to the AMA, nearly one in five Canadians said they have driven high or have been in a vehicle with a drug-impaired driver.
To read the CAA’s full study, visit the association’s website.
With files from Patrick Cain, Global News and The Canadian Press.