Driving High or Driving Drunk?

What’s Worse… Driving High or Driving Drunk? The Trudeau Government thinks it has an answer.

With last month’s historic milestone for cannabis rights, Canadians will enjoy greater freedom than ever to get high as they please. However, upon closer inspection, Bill C-46 (the legislation surrounding the legalization of Cannabis) posses a few unpalatable additions to it regarding high driving. These are the flies in your much-anticipated THC rich soup that you should take a moment to consider before gulping down the Trudeau government’s plan for cannabis legalization… after all, your freedom might depend on it.

So, with weed mania all around us and the countdown to legal weed almost upon us, there is no better time to play the role of a wet blanket and look at some of the more controversial aspects of this much-anticipated bill and see how they stack up to the government’s stance on alcohol.

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You Make a Bad Decision

It’s a Friday night and you’ve had a particularly arduous work week. You choose to blow off some steam like any self-respecting Canadian would: with upwards of 3 bong tokes and a long journey down the YouTube rabbit hole. As you recline peacefully under the itchy quilt your grandmother thought you simply had to have… crisis strikes. You forgot to pick up Bugles on the way home.

After what feels like hours of internal debate, you finally make the decision to do what your mother, your conscience and that talking dog from the anti-weed commercial have begged you not to do. You drive high…

Police Car in winter
You’ve made the ill-advised decision to drive high. Not your finest hour.. (image via National Post)

After 10 minutes of driving remarkably similar to that grandma who knitted you the quilt, you find yourself having an uncomfortable chat with an upstanding officer who flagged you down from his unmarked Ford Crown Victoria. Once all is said and done your bodily fluids have been extracted and you’ve earned yourself a free ride to the station. You might be wondering, besides the ire and concern of your friends and family, what sort of punishment might you be facing in the above scenario. The answer might surprise you.

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Are the New High Driving Laws Too Harsh?

The specific charge you receive will be the direct result of how much THC is detected from your blood sample. Two separate charges are currently on the books. The less severe of the two would result from a sample with as little as 2 nanograms of THC present within your bloodstream. This ‘minor’ charge could mean up to a 1000 fine and a summary conviction.

A more severe punishment exists for those unlucky enough to have 5 or more nanograms of THC in his or her bloodstream. Under this offense, you could be facing as much as 10 years of jail time.

 This is particularly strict, especially when contrasted with the Canadian government’s stance on drunk driving. A Canadian who has had one too many crown and gingers and decided to make a Timmies run with a blood alcohol level of greater than .08% would face a MAXIMUM sentence of 5 Years in Jail and 5 Years driving probation… for their SECOND offense.

What is most troubling about this is the lack of consistency with which driving under the influence will be treated. There are perhaps only two rational paths which a government that plans to legalize Cannabis can take.

  1. a) Cannabis and all other drugs that cause intoxication INCLUDING ALCOHOL are treated with equal potential to do harm to motorists. This would merit only one system of punishment for ALL forms impaired driving.
  2. b) Cannabis is regarded as a more benign, LESS judgment-impairing drug to alcohol. This train of thought would lead to the conclusion that LESS severe legislation would be required to punish stoned drivers.

However, the third option elected by the Trudeau government to regard pot as a drug that merits stricter punishments than alcohol is surely a mistake and cannot be found in scientific fact. This deserves a moment of somber thought.

An equally as troubling notion is the fact that the methods by which the Canadian Justice System plans to determine innocence or guilt are at best inaccurate and at worst completely useless.

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Why the Testing Methods Suck

Earlier I mentioned that certain amounts of THC detected within a potential high driver’s bloodstream determine the sentence they will receive. If you think these numbers reflect some sort of scientific consensus or have any relevance to whether a motorist is competent and sober you would be incorrect. The truth is however that this odd “two-tiered” system of sobriety tests might just be as dangerous as it is arbitrary.

The lesser of the two numbers mentioned, 2 nanograms might not actually reflect anything at all. It is stated within a regulatory impact analysis statement that accompanies Bill C-46 that the 2 nanogram limit “is not directly linked with impairment, but it, rather, based on a precautionary or crime prevention approach”. By policymaker’s own admission, you could be convicted of an impaired driving-related offense, while not actually being impaired.

But what about that 5 nanogram limit? Surely this must reflect some sort of sobriety threshold, after all the next ten years of your life could be at stake as a result. The truth is, the entire system of using THC levels in the blood, isn’t even has nothing to do with sobriety.

Its easy to detect drunk drivers using blood alcohol. DUI on cannabis might not be as simple (image via Scott Air Force Base)

The system of using levels of psychoactive compounds in one’s bloodstream is a borrowed procedure for detecting drunk drivers. The reason why blood alcohol levels are a good judge of sobriety is that alcohol is water soluble. Therefore, after you’ve had a drink, the drug spreads throughout your body. So, when your friendly neighborhood officer asks you to blow into his breathalyzer, he can be confident that the amount alcohol detected in your breath will be the same as the amount of alcohol within your brain. If you’re above a certain threshold (in this case .08%) he or she can say with relative certainty that you’ve had too much. Follow so far?

THC doesn’t work this way, because instead of dissolving in water, it is fat soluble. In layman’s terms, this means that after that first bong toke, rather than THC dispersing consistently across your body, fatty tissues within you will soak it up… fatty tissues like the brain. For this reason, THC Levels in your blood will decrease rapidly after consumption… as much as a 90% decrease with 2 hours, while THC levels in other parts of your body do not. That means you could be stoned out of your mind and still register below the legal limit on the existing tests.

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The Problem With Edibles and Career Stoners

A second, similar problem is presented with edible cannabis. According to Margret Haney, Neurobiologist at Colombia University in an interview with NPR, after eating that harmless little gummy bear your blood will never carry that much THC because “with Oral THC, it takes several hours for [blood THC] to peak, but it remains very low compared to the smoke route, even though they’re very high. It’s a hundredfold difference”. Thus, if you prefer to eat rather than smoke your Cannabis, a blood test might prove completely ineffective in determining your sobriety.

Sir William Blackstone
Sir William Blackstone, champion of Cannabis rights. He would not stand for the DUI provisions within Bill C-46 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Sir William Blackstone once stated in his famous formulation that it is, “Better that ten guilty stoners go free than to let one innocent stoner suffer.” Undoubtedly, Blackstone had Bill C-46 in mind as he pondered this ethical dilemma. At the but end of this joke is the habitual pot smoker, who under current testing protocols risks being convicted of impaired driving while not actually impaired.

Because THC is fat soluble, your body retains a certain amount, even after your high has worn off. With a water-soluble compound like vitamin C, you simply urinate out what is not being used.  THC, however, will be present in your bloodstream long after you’re high if you are a regular pot smoker. This is because the compound will gradually dissipate back into your bloodstream until its all gone. With daily users, the sheer amount of THC in their system means that the compound will continue to leach out from their body fat, into their bloodstream for weeks. This means that even though a chronic smoker might not be high at all, a blood or saliva sample might be enough to convict them for impaired, driving weeks after they’ve toked up.

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So, if THC blood levels do not reflect intoxication and could result in high drivers getting off scot-free and sober responsible driver going to prison, why does Ottawa seem insistent on using this irresponsible and reckless protocol?

Perhaps the best answer isn’t to arbitrarily jump on a hasty, Band-Aid solution in the interest of political expediency… especially when people’s freedom is at stake. Maybe the most responsible thing to do is to proceed with caution and wait for a scientific consensus and more advanced testing methods before we haphazardly get on board with a policy that could ruin lives.

By: Stefan Hosko
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