No one disputes that impaired driving is a problem or that drug-impaired driving is a part of that problem. There is a fine line, however, between calmly and prudently addressing these matters and overreacting with irrational policy responses. The past week has shown us some unfortunate examples of the latter.
As marijuana legalization looms next year, governments and police forces across the country seem inclined to exercise an abundance of caution in approaching this new reality — some more so than others. In Quebec, for example, they’re taking the ultra-cautious approach to a concerning extreme.
Among other measures, Quebec’s new legislation proposes a zero-tolerance approach for marijuana and driving. Any motorist with even trace amounts in their system could lose their licence for 90 days, which would almost certainly ensnare drivers who are not in any way impaired and may be several days removed from the last time they consumed the drug. That seems rather unjust, for one thing. Moreover, it’s hard to see how that improves road safety.
Alcohol, of course, is the far bigger problem when it comes to impaired driving, yet no government has proposed reducing the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) level to zero. No one would seriously argue that a motorist who registers a BAC level of 0.01 is impaired — or 0.001, for that matter. Such an approach would indeed be irrational. So why does it make sense to apply it here?
According to Statistics Canada, drug-impaired driving accounts for only about four per cent of total impaired driving incidents — and that includes all drugs. For example, the province with the highest drug-impaired driving rate, Newfoundland and Labrador, has a rate of just over 20 incidents per 100,000 population. The province with the highest alcohol-impaired driving rate, Saskatchewan, has a rate of nearly 600 incidents per 100,000 population.
When making new laws, we can’t lose sight of what the evidence tells us about risk.
A 2015 study from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that alcohol-impaired drivers are at a far higher risk of a crash than marijuana-impaired drivers. In fact, there was no statistically significant change in the risk of a crash associated with the use of marijuana, painkillers, or antidepressants. Alcohol impairment, however, increased the odds of a crash by nearly 600 per cent.
And remember, we are legalizing cannabis not inventing it. Both vehicles the drug itself have existed for decades. Cannabis-impaired driving has been illegal for decades. There are some who seem under the impression that we’re unleashing this drug on society.
The Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police released a letter this week warning of how the legalization timeline leaves “insufficient time for the full consideration necessary in the creation of the regulatory framework to ensure the safety of Albertans.” When it comes to drug-impaired driving, it’s illegal now, it was illegal last year, and it will be illegal in 2018 and beyond. That isn’t changing. If anything, the new federal legislation further clarifies and strengthens the laws around drug-impaired driving and sets out thresholds for THC limits.
Furthermore, simply because cannabis is legalized it does not automatically mean a surge in consumption, and even if it did, it does not follow that a surge in consumption leads to an increase in impaired driving. As even MADD Canada has pointed out repeatedly, Germans consume about 20 per cent more alcohol than Canadians, yet their rate of fatal alcohol-related crashes is five times lower.
We can also look to the experience in the U.S. states that have now had three years of legalization. A major study released earlier this year found that “changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization.”
So while we shouldn’t be complacent about what awaits us in 2018, we shouldn’t be needlessly paranoid, either. Irrational paranoia is what created the mess of prohibition in the first place.
Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Calgary’s NewsTalk 770 and a commentator for Global News.