Is Education the Answer to Curbing Cannabis Impaired Driving?

With cannabis legalization seemingly just around the corner, the discussion around responsible use is growing increasingly important.

One of the main areas of concern has to do with cannabis use and driving. 

Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have effectively lobbied the government and advocated for legislative changes in order to address the supposed increase in impaired driving that they say will occur due to legalization. These changes are embodied in Bill C-46, the companion legislation to Bill C-45, which will eventually legalize marijuana. 

Bill C-46 will change the criminal laws in this country in relation to impaired driving. 

It will create roadside oral-fluid testing for drugs and set per se limits for THC in a driver’s body. This means that a driver could be convicted for impaired driving for not actually being impaired, but for simply having a particular amount of THC in their bloodstream at the time of driving. 

This is something that many cannabis advocates and legal experts, including myself, have taken issue with. These types of changes have the potential of breaching charter rights while unfairly and disproportionately impacting medical and frequent recreational cannabis users.

That being said, there is no doubt that impaired driving is a serious issue in our society. 

Impaired driving should be discouraged at all times. Drug-impaired driving should be discouraged with the same fervour as alcohol-impaired driving. 

However, some frequent cannabis users may not agree with that statement. 

A recent study conducted by the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition found that most cannabis users believe that their ability to drive is only slightly impaired by cannabis use, and some even believe it is improved. More than half of cannabis users believe that driving after cannabis use has no effect on their ability to drive or their risk of being involved in a collision.

Unfortunately, this is simply not the case.

Cannabis use has been shown to have negative short-term impacts on reaction time, motor coordination, short-term memory, divided attention, and decision-making skills.  Driving following cannabis use actually increases the risk of being involved in a motor vehicle accident by 20 percent, on average. 

Quite simply, cannabis impairment is impairment. When a person who is impaired by cannabis drives, they are driving while impaired. 

But are wide, sweeping, potentially unconstitutional changes to our criminal laws the answer to cannabis impaired driving? Or is there a better alternative?

As is the case most things, my prediction that education will be key. 

More so than legislative changes, education is likely to effectively increase public awareness following legalization and to decrease instances of drug-impaired driving.   

After all, effective public education campaigns have helped to significantly reduce alcohol impaired driving in the past. There is no reason why they shouldn't  play a fundamental and central role in relation to cannabis use moving forward. 

That being said, some changes in approach will need to be made.  

An effective educational initiative will need to significantly depart from how cannabis use has been treated by public health campaigns in the past.

Historically, such campaigns approached cannabis use from a prohibitionist perspective. They focused on the so-called harms of cannabis use and strongly discouraged its use, relying on fear and fantasy. 

This type of messaging is unlikely to be effective, given our current political and social climate. This is particularly so as cannabis legalization looms, and the drug becomes more widely tolerated and socially accepted.  

Instead of fear-mongering and encouraging abstinence as the only acceptable alternative, public health and safety authorities should create campaigns with clear, concise, factual and nonjudgmental messaging around cannabis use and cannabis users. They should accept cannabis use as a viable option and should present facts about associated risks in order to help minimize them. 

These types of campaigns should be presented in a respectful and straightforward manner. 

They should emphasize responsible cannabis use in realistic terms and provide both new and frequent users with the information that they need in order to regulate themselves and avoid posing a threat to others. 

After all, when it comes to road safety—whether we’re talking about alcohol, cellphones, or cannabis—public education is key…and appropriately packaging that message will be of fundamental importance as we move towards legalization. 

If used effectively, such a campaign is likely to spark discussions around responsible cannabis practices and will create long-lasting, positive changes in relation to our roadways and beyond.  

You can read this article as it appears in The Georgia Straight here.

Sarah Leamon