Marijuana Road Sign

Marijuana Legalization in Canada and the Concern of Impaired Driving

In the coming months, we will find out whether the Liberals will make good on their campaign promise of legalizing marijuana. Last year, the Liberals indicated they would introduce new legislation and rules concerning legalization by April 2017. Online, the party’s statement regarding their plans for decriminalization reads: “To ensure that we keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals, we will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana..” It is not surprising that the initiative is already being intensely debated.

At present, possessing and selling marijuana for non-medical purposes is illegal in Canada. The new initiative will attempt to legalize marijuana when used for “non-medical purposes,” but at the same time strictly regulate and restrict access to marijuana. The hope is that decriminalization will save resources within the criminal justice system, take the industry out of the hands of illegal traffickers, and provide revenue through taxation.

As a personal injury lawyer, one of my foremost concerns with legalizing marijuana is whether we will see an increase in impaired driving accidents. It seems likely that if marijuana is decriminalized, there is likely to be a spike in its consumption that follows the date of legalization. I would imagine there will be spike, at least for a period of time, on account of many Canadians finding novelty in legal marijuana consumption, whereas for many others, factors such as easier access and affordability would also likely bolster their consumption. With such a spike, it might just mean there are also more people who get behind the wheel and drive under the influence of marijuana. In this regard, while there is data available on impaired driving in recently decriminalized jurisdictions (Colorado and Washington), unfortunately, the data is limited. Needless to say, more data is needed to validate whether this is a true concern or not.

Some groups who have already expressed their concerns to the government. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), have called for Criminal Code amendments. Marie-Claude Morin of MADD said the organization wants cannabis to be subject to the same laws that currently apply to driving under the influence of alcohol, but to have the two impaired-driving offences appear distinct in the code.

There is no question that distracted driving is already a very serious and real concern. With the potential for an increase in impaired motorists on our roads, it raises concern over whether we might be making our roads more dangerous. There also will be challenges with how police might recognize and deter a driver who is impaired on marijuana. For instance, is there a sufficiently accurate roadside test that can be administered to the driver? How ‘high’ is too high to operate a vehicle? How do we check how high a driver is on THC (one of the active components in marijuana)? Or to be even more complex, how do we deal with a driver who might be under the THC limit to operate a vehicle, and also under the impaired limit for alcohol, but has both substances in his system, yet the driver had not contravened either law and would not ‘fail’ the roadside tests? It seems that there must be some proactive measures and safeguards put into place well in advance of legalization in order to address these concerns.

No doubt, there will have to be a body of research for the government to grapple with on these issues if they are to move forward to decriminalization. In a nation where the driving conditions are already challenging for a good portion of the year on account of snow and ice, we certainly do not want to be in a situation where we take one step forward but two steps back. Too many lives have already been destroyed due to death and injury from impaired motorists; there is no question that our government must be mindful of ensuring our roads are safer, not more dangerous, as we move forward.

Christopher Dawson

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