Teens more likely to drive under the influence of drugs than alcohol

TORONTO – It seems as though alcohol may not be the only thing  impairing teens while driving. A recent survey suggests more teens are likely to drive while high than while drunk.

Marc Paris, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug Free Canada, said that close to 40 per cent of teens say they are passengers in a vehicle driven by someone who is under the influence of drugs.

More often than not, that drug is cannabis.

“Drugged driving” is a term given to those who drive under the influence of drugs like marijuana, prescription drugs and other illegal substances.

In a recent survey of senior high school students in Atlantic provinces, 15.1 per cent of respondents reported to driving after using marijuana.

The number of drug-impaired driving offences had also increased by 15 per cent from 2009 to 2010.

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Paris said that the number of teens who “drug drive” is almost double the number of teens who drive drunk, with drugged drivers ranging around 40 per cent, and drunk drivers at 20-21 per cent.

Why are the numbers so high? The answer is complicated. Most teens simply do not believe the risks are as high when drugged driving – especially when they are high on marijuana.

“[They] don’t realize that marijuana affects their faculties,” says Paris. “It affects their depth perception, reaction time, [and] attentiveness.”

Years of education campaigns have made drunk driving socially unacceptable – more so than for drugs.

“Most parents don’t think about drugged driving,” says Paris.  “It’s not on their radar.”

Drugged driving is not a new phenomenon. It has been prohibited by the Criminal Code since 1925.

It wasn’t until 2008 that drug-impaired driving provisions were emphasized and prosecuted by observational evidence. In other words, it had to be obvious that a driver was high in order to be detected and charged.

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A 3-step process for a road side test is implemented upon suspicion. If a driver fails that test, they are taken to a police station for a 12-step drug evaluation. At this point, the driver is asked to give a saliva sample. If they are found to have consumed the suspected drug, they are subject to being charged.

Also in 2008, the Criminal Code was amended to allow police to demand “physical coordination tests” and Drug Recognition Evaluations (DREs). Though a total of 800 officers have been trained in this evaluation process so far, fewer than 500 officers actually conduct DREs.

Many cases of drugged drivers do not even reach the courts.

CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Andrew Murie said that courts seldom prosecute offenders, and often reject a crown attorney’s arguments. Though a person may appear to have been driving under the influence of drugs, it is difficult to prove he or she was impaired at the time of driving.

With alcohol, the limit is 0.05 per cent in Ontario, with over 0.08 per cent deemed as a criminal offence under the Criminal Code.

Murie said that for most teens, the likelihood of getting caught or charged is almost non-existent.

“Teens take chances [with drugs] that they might not take with alcohol,” said Murie.
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He also said that drugs may be involved in more deaths than are currently reported.

“Once a coroner tests a dead driver and they find alcohol, they [usually] stop there,” he said.

Murie suggested that Canada should follow European or Australian models, which have per se limits and random breath tests (RBTs).

“We need to have something like 5 nanograms of cannabis [per millilitre]. If [someone] is above that level, [he or she] can be charged with a Criminal Code offense”.

In Canada, this would be a little more complicated. Cannabis is currently prohibited by federal law, providing a mandatory six-month jail term for growing as few as six marijuana plants. This means a 5-nanogram limit would be difficult to regulate for an illegal substance. Ontario has a zero tolerance limit for alcohol for drivers under 21. Many believe driving under the influence of drugs should do the same.

Both Paris and Murie point out that it isn’t just teens doing it- adults too are included, though they may be more hesitant to admit it.

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– With files from Beatrice Politi

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