High behind the wheel: Many Canadians don’t understand impaired driving laws
October 24, 2019
Focus Area—Human Resources
This op-ed was originally posted by the Globe and Mail on October 10th 2019. Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada. Karina Karassev is the chief operating officer at Responsible Cannabis Use (RCU).
When it comes to how cannabis factors into impaired driving laws, many Canadians still have a lot to learn, a recent survey from cannabis education company RCU (Responsible Cannabis Use) suggests.
In August, RCU asked more than 4,500 Canadians about cannabis and impaired driving. More than half of the people surveyed didn’t know how the law applies if they are pulled over by police. Thirty-eight per cent of people surveyed knew that police have tools for roadside drug screening, but erroneously believed that these tools are inaccurate.
According to research conducted by Public Safety Canada in 2017, 25 per cent of people believe that the impact of cannabis consumption is less detrimental to driving than alcohol. Truth is, cannabis intoxication is different than alcohol, but just as impairing.
Drug-impaired driving has been a criminal offence in Canada since 1925. Bill C-46 came into force last year to address the legalization of cannabis, strengthening these impaired driving laws.
The legislation allows police to use oral-fluid drug-screening devices at roadside stops, similar to a breathalyzer. It also sets concentration levels for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), much like blood-alcohol concentration levels. If police have a reasonable suspicion that a driver is under the influence of drugs, they can demand a saliva sample. Refusing to provide a sample is a criminal offense.
A failed oral-fluid test shows that cannabis has recently been consumed, but a blood test is what is used to determine the penalty. Police officers don’t require an oral-fluid test to ask for a blood sample. And even if the saliva test is negative, officers can still ask for a blood sample to confirm their suspicion.
As the survey shows, it’s a common misconception that because THC lingers in the body after consumption, roadside tests are imprecise.
Saliva with more than 25 nanograms per millilitre (ng/mL) of THC is an accurate indication that the person has recently smoked or vaped, according to Afshin Mousavian, CEO of RCU.
“Most people do not know that in the first 90 minutes after smoking, you can have over 1,000 ng/mL of THC in your oral fluid,” Mr. Mousavian adds. “The THC will peak 10–20 minutes after smoking and will dissipate over four to six hours, eventually reaching under 25 ng/mL.
It gets even more complicated when taking into account the fact that the time it takes THC levels in oral fluid to peak and then drop is different for each person. It depends on many factors, including what was consumed, how it was consumed and how often the person uses cannabis.
These are critical issues for all drivers. We are all familiar with the dangers of drunk driving, thanks in large part to long-running awareness and prevention campaigns. Now that recreational cannabis is legal, Canadians need to understand how cannabis affects their ability to drive.
Governments can promote awareness of the law, but employers can also take steps to educate their employees. A recent report by the Conference Board of Canada found that 78 per cent of organizations in the transportation and warehousing industry are concerned with the impact of legal cannabis in the workplace. This is not surprising, considering that 13 per cent of Canadian workers told Statistics Canada they have consumed cannabis before or during work. When you consider that 11.3 million Canadians drove a vehicle to work every day in 2011, this statistic is even more troubling.
Findings in the Conference Board report show that the effects of consuming cannabis are broadly misunderstood. Everyone is affected differently, and safe cannabis practices are not yet clear. Employee education is one of the most cost-effective and beneficial ways for an organization to encourage responsible cannabis use.
Education by employers is most effective when it includes:
- Updated internal policies to address cannabis at work
- Free resources like www.dontbesorry.ca to educate employees about regional laws, and on what happens if they are pulled over
- Regular cannabis education to make sure their workplace stays safe
- Cannabis-specific training for both managers and employees
Impaired driving affects everyone on the road. And the law against it is not new. What is new is our understanding of what impairment is and how it works. Employers are in a good position to educate a large part of the population, which is why they should use their influence to help make our streets much safer.