Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr
Cannabis won’t be legal in Canada for another two weeks, but a new survey suggests it’s already common for Ontario drivers to get behind the wheel after using the drug.
A poll released Thursday by the South Central Ontario chapter of the Canadian Automobile Association found 48 per cent of drivers who said they currently use cannabis reported they had tried driving after ingesting or smoking the drug.
Sixteen per cent of all the province’s motorists said they had tried driving after using pot at some point in their life.
The poll, conducted by Ipsos in July, surveyed 1,000 adults in the province who have a valid driver’s licence and drive a motor vehicle. Extrapolating the results, the CAA said the poll shows 1.9 million of the province’s motorists have taken to the road under the influence of pot.
“It tells us right away that road safety must be a priority and be a leading issue now that we’re getting towards the point of legalization,” said Elliott Silverstein, the CAA’s manager of government relations, who emphasized the need for public awareness campaigns to deter driving while high.
While the poll suggests using cannabis before driving is already prevalent, Silverstein said his organization is concerned “there’s a potential for there to be more of it come legalization.”
Recreational use of the drug will become legal across Canada on Oct. 17.
According to the poll, motorists who said they drove after using pot were more likely to be male (69 per cent), between the ages of 25 and 34 (35 per cent), and live in the downtown of a major city (37 per cent).
The survey also found 68 per cent of all respondents said they believed the end of cannabis prohibition will lead to more people driving while high.
Those concerns are “not backed up by evidence,” according to Dr. M-J Milloy, a research scientist at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use and one of the co-authors of a report on cannabis regulation written for the Canadian Senate earlier this year.
As part of that report, researchers examined studies of fatal collisions in the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado, where voters opted in 2012 to legalize cannabis.
The data showed the proportion of drivers killed in collisions who tested positive for THC — the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — increased after legalization. But because THC can be detected in the blood up to 28 days after consumption, Milloy said, the results didn’t necessarily indicate intoxication at the time of the crash.
A finding the researchers suggested was more significant was that rates of all fatal collisions in Colorado and Washington didn’t significantly change after legalization compared to states where the drug was still prohibited, suggesting lifting the ban didn’t lead to greater incidence of dangerous driving behaviour.
Some studies have found a near doubling of the risk of crashing for drivers who have consumed pot. Milloy said there’s no debate over that it’s not safe to drive while high, but it’s unlikely legalization presents a new risk.
“I think people who are concerned should remember that cannabis is not new to Canadians. Certainly it’s very commonly used now before legalization, and it will be commonly used afterwards,” he said.
Under federal legislation that came into effect in June, drivers who are caught with 5 nanograms of THC or more per millilitre of blood face mandatory minimum fines of $1,000. Repeat offenders could spend at least 120 days in jail.
Critics of the legislation have raised concerns about the ability of roadside tests to reliably measure marijuana impairment.
Andrew Murie, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the numbers in the Ipsos poll are troubling, but not surprising.
He said public awareness about the dangers of driving while high is “not even close” to that of the acknowledgement, now widespread in Canada, of the risks of drunk driving.
But Murie argued public messaging aimed at deterring driving under the influence of cannabis needs to be different than campaigns against drunk driving, because the effects of marijuana wear off much faster than alcohol, especially when the drug is smoked.
“I think that one of the things we have made a mistake (in doing) up to now is we’ve just been saying, like alcohol, don’t do it,” he said.
He argued campaigns about pot should advise drivers to wait four hours after smoking before getting behind the wheel. “That’s a reasonable message,” he said.
The Ipsos poll is considered accurate plus or minus 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, according to the CAA.