Marijuana impaired collisions reignite law debate

Cannabis impaired driving is a contentious issue, sparking debates among pot advocates and law enforcement alike.
Cannabis impaired driving is a contentious issue, sparking debates among pot advocates and law enforcement alike. (File image)

An exaggerated fear? The debate on driving under influence of marijuana lingers

A recent fatal collision in California that claimed the lives of three civilians is just the latest involving alleged driving under the influence of cannabis. The collision, which occurred this past Tuesday evening on Interstate 880 in Fremont, has sparked an ongoing debate whether marijuana affects impairment among drivers.

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Three killed and five injured in a multi-vehicle crash on I-880 in Fremont. (Screengrab from NBC)

Controversial stances

Cannabis impaired driving is a contentious issue, sparking debates among pot advocates and law enforcement alike. For those who want to see legalization materialize, this debate promotes a fear-mongering campaign to validate federal criminalization.

Jodie Emery, a prominent Canadian cannabis activist, maintains that marijuana “doesn’t increase impaired driving crashes or fatalities.”

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Jodie Emery (R), a prominent cannabis activist, maintains that marijuana “doesn’t increase impaired driving crashes or fatalities.” (Image via Canadian Press)

She and many others, who share similar sentiments, cite studies published by acclaimed outlets such as Newsweek and Science Daily, indicating no concrete scientific evidence linking cannabidiol (CBD), the main soothing therapeutic component in cannabis, to levels of impairment.

They also claim that unlike alcohol, testing positive for marijuana does not mean a person is under the influence of the drug at the time of the traffic accident, since tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can last in the body for days after consumption. THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis which produces the “high” feeling.

Previous Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson of Colorado, one of the first U.S. states to legalize marijuana, said in 2016 “marijuana-related” traffic deaths, hospital visits, and school suspensions in the state “have not significantly” increased in the state since legalization in 2012. This claim was immediately debunked by officials.

Dispensary helps police

A Denver-based dispensary, Native Roots, is now aiding police to help manage the increased cases of impaired driving in the city by providing education to their users about the dangers of driving high.

A study released in December 2017 by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) has found that cannabis-related traffic death has increased in Canada, as the country inches closer to nationwide recreational legalization. According to TIRF, between 2000 and 2014, the amount of marijuana found in the system of fatally injured drivers increased from 12% to 19%.

Legislation troubles

Bill C-46, which was passed alongside The Cannabis Act to legalize marijuana, was proposed by the Canadian federal government in 2017 to help police address the issue of impaired driving before nationwide legalization laws take effect in the summer.

If passed by the Senate, Bill C-46 will increase police powers related to impaired driving and increase the maximum punishment for driving-related offences in the Criminal Code from 10 years to 14 years. In addition to that, offences causing deaths would increase from 14 years to life in prison.

Liberal MP Bill Blair, a strong proponent of the bill, said the legislation will help save lives.

But many within the legal world have concerns around civil liberties and human rights.

Kathryn Pentz of the Canadian Bar Association argued that the bill would violate section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and “that it would not withstand constitutional challenge.”

Senators Murray Sinclair and Renee Dupuis also questioned the implications of the bill on racial profiling.

Other legal substances causing fatal collisions

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Opioids and alcohol cause far more mayhem on the roads than cannabis and their enforcement is not as legislated or as regulated.

Although laws targeting impaired driving should be enforced, there seems to be a crackdown specifically on marijuana users as legalization looms. The Canadian Military has recently bought “marijuana stimulation kits” so its forces can experience what it’s like to be on weed.

It said:

“The purpose of the Marijuana Stimulation Kits is to raise awareness of marijuana impairment, reduce risk of marijuana impairment, and promote healthy lifestyles within the Canadian Armed Forces.”

However, there are substances that are already legal which cause far more mayhem on the roads than cannabis and their enforcement is not as legislated or as monitored.

In light of the recent opioid crisis, there have been far more opioid and prescription overdose-related deaths than motor vehicle accidents across North America.

Prescription medications can also cause impairment which can result in fatal collisions, said researchers at Columbia University.

Other factors

Speed, weather, and distracted driving are also other causes for concern. Contrary to police expectation, restriction on cannabis may not necessarily solve the issue of impaired driving.

The point of regulating cannabis should not be to increase harms through laws but rather should be focused on undoing many of the damage which has contributed to barriers over the years in medical research and accessing medical cannabis.

The debate regarding cannabis impairment is not a new one, and it is certainly not going to end with legalization. More parameters need to be set in place with impairment of – all kinds – so police and the public can better educate themselves.

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