Will Road Safety be affected by the Legalization of Marijuana?

Posted by Injury Lawyers of Ontario on July 26, 2016

In April 2016, the Liberal government announced plans to bring about the legalization of marijuana use in 2017.  Many Canadians have strong feelings about the wisdom of this proposed action, both in favour and against, but one of the issues that has not been resolved or adequately addressed is whether marijuana's legalization will increase the incidence of driving while under the influence of marijuana and further, will this result in more frequent car accidents and injury. 

A Government of Canada report on "driving under the influence of cannibis" acknowledges, "If there is one issue, other than the effects of  cannabis use on young people or the effects of substance abuse, that is likely to be of concern to society and governments, then it is certainly the issue of how it affects the ability to drive a vehicle". Further, if increased use of cannabus results in one more vehicle fatality, then that is one death too many.  

According to the Huffington Post, approximately 75,000 Canadians are consuming marijuana legally for medical purposes. Research has shown that marijuana consumption can aid in pain relief , nausea, glaucoma, and other neurological disorders. Marijuana is also an appetite stimulant and is prescribed to HIV, AIDS and dementia patients that are suffering from extreme weight loss. Marijuana may also protect against certain malignant tumors.

Although marijuana is purported to have medicinal benefits, the effects of increased marijuana usage on other elements of society, specifically on the potential for motor vehicle accidents, are of concern to many.  One organization, NORMAL.org has addressed the issue of legalized marijuana on traffic fatalities and claims that there is evidence that the effects of marijuana on a driver's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle are quite different than that of alcohol. While the consumption of alcohol negatively impacts a driver's basic motor skills, judgment, and reaction time, it is argued that the effects of consuming marijuana appear to be less significant.  As per NORMAL.org, a driver who has used marijuana tends to drive slower to counter any decrease in reaction time to emergencies.  In their review of seven separate studies of approximately 8000 drivers, they concluded that drivers under the influence of marijuana had no marked increase in road crashes versus those who didn't use the substance. 

The above report conveys a different message than the Government of Canada report on driving under the influence of cannibis, which concludes that marijuana effects psychomotor skills for as much as five hours after use, although there does not appear to be a sustained effect (after 4-5 hours).  Also, the psychoactive affects can vary substantially between individuals and relate to the amount of marijuana used, the concentration of THC, and the characteristics of the user, including their experience and expectations.  A World Health Organization Committee report on the Health Effects of Cannabis looked at experimental studies which agreed on the following effects: a driver's lane control is impaired and they do not steer as accurately; the driver tends to start and brake more slowly;  and there is decreased visual monitoring and decreased recognition of potential hazards.  The Government of Canada report admits, however, that there continues to be divergence in the results of studies of cannibis use in drivers and further investigation is needed.

Unfortunately, there is currently no effective method to test a driver for driving under the influence of marijuana.  What is problematic for law enforcement is the fact that the use of urine or blood tests to determine recent marijuana use is flawed because marijuana stays in a person's system for weeks.  Also, currently, breath tests cannot ascertain whether someone is driving under the influence of marijuana, in the same way that they can be used to determine whether a driver may be impaired by alcohol. 

Presently, if a police officer suspects a driver of  marijuana use, they will perform a Field Sobriety Test and also look for other signs of marijuana use, such as the smell of marijuana inside the driver's car, bloodshot eyes and driving too slowly. A Field Sobriety Test involves submitting the driver to a series of mental and physical exercises including the walk-and-turn test, the one-leg stand and an examination of their eye movements (the horizontal gaze nystagmus test).  These tests are deemed to be about 77 per cent reliable by the U.S. National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The current penalties, including jail sentences for first and subsequent offenders, for drivers who are found to be impaired by marijuana are the same as for those impaired by alcohol. When a driver is convicted of driving while impaired, offenders may be required to complete alcohol and drug education, treatment and rehabilitation as a condition of their sentence or probation.

For anyone who was severely injured or lost a loved one due to driver negligence resulting from marijuana use, the criminal penalties to an 'at fault' driver offer little satisfaction.   Certainly, this issue is one  that deserves significant further investigation and the question of 'how to identify impaired drivers' must be resolved.  

If you or a family member were injured in a motor vehicle accident caused by a negligent driver, call the Injury Lawyers of Ontario to find out about your legal rights and options for compensation.


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