Feb. 4, 2006
Potheads like to toke and drive
Many believe it's okay and few can counter the claim
But study sees more collisions among smoking teenagers
THE TORONTO STAR
It's usually near Belleville — with traffic thinning and the daunting prospect of staring at two laser-straight lanes of blacktop for another four hours — that Tobias lights the first of two joints he'll smoke while driving to Montreal.
Motorists have different ways of coping with the excruciatingly dull drive on the 401 outside Toronto. Some listen to music or audio books, some take advantage of airtime deals and call friends.
For others, smoking pot is an appealing solution — even while at the controls of two tonnes of hurtling steel and glass.
Anything to make the time and distance unreel more swiftly.
"I don't think it's reckless behaviour if you smoke a joint and drive," says Tobias (not his real name), a communications consultant who counts some of Canada's best-known companies among his clients.
"I actively choose to improve my driving by smoking," he says, pointing out that he sets the cruise control at 118 km/h and carefully checks his blind spot "at least three times" before negotiating a lane change.
Tobias believes he's a worse driver when he's not stoned on the 401, tending to speed in excess of 125 km/h and drive more aggressively.
"When I'm high and driving, I'm very conscious of that fact, so I'm cautious."
If he's nonchalant about the practice, it's because Tobias believes there's not much indignation among Canadians regarding smoking dope and driving. But the issue got a boost in November when the Ottawa-based Canadian Public Health Association aimed a public awareness campaign at students.
Lee Bishop, Toronto Police Service RIDE co-ordinator, sees the issue at street level.
"Drug use and driving is simply not on the public's radar screen," notes Bishop, a 20-year veteran of the force. There's an absence of spectacular crashes that incriminate pot use, so people and politicians aren't clamouring for greater enforcement.
Without a body count to point to, the practice is seemingly gaining acceptance.
"Youth are telling us they believe they can get away with toking and driving," complains Bishop. "They know we don't have a roadside test for it."
While it's true there's no technology equivalent to a Breathalyzer for pot, police can still check for impairment the old-fashioned way.
Motorists stopped during the year-round RIDE program may face a standardized field sobriety test, which involves examining the driver's co-ordination and eye movement.
If the RIDE officer suspects impairment due to drugs rather than alcohol, a police officer specially trained in drug recognition will be dispatched to test the suspect further at the roadside.
Should the trained officer see evidence of impairment, the driver can be charged with operating a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs and is brought into the station for formal testing, which usually involves a blood sample.
However, Bishop says, the police have no authority to demand a blood test, so the field evidence doesn't hold up well in court. "The courts have shown us that drug impairment is hard to prove."
That's because there's no legal determination of what level of THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana — constitutes "impairment," says Bishop.
For alcohol, that figure is 0.08 per cent blood alcohol concentration — a legal threshold, Bishop points out, that took years for the courts to accept.
Then there's the problem of resources. At present, Toronto has only about a half-dozen officers trained as drug recognition experts out of 265 who regularly work the spot checks.
"Not enough training has been done as yet. It's a money issue," says Bishop. "The city has determined it has other enforcement priorities right now."
Even if the driver was to surrender a sample that revealed THC in the blood, that's not sufficient evidence to suggest the charged motorist was impaired at the time of the spot check, says Kirk Tousaw, general counsel to the British Columbia Marijuana Party.
That's because THC can remain in the blood and fat tissue to up to 30 days after using pot, even though the high wears off after an hour or two.
"Testing of bodily fluids does not provide evidence of when the drugs were used," Tousaw wrote on behalf of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association in a submission to the B.C. government on the question of roadside drug testing.
Drug testing is also susceptible to error. Some over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can generate false positives for cannabis. More than 100 prescription drugs can also test positive for pot, Tousaw wrote.
The Canadian Public Health Association's fall campaign was anchored by a poster — 55,000 of which were mailed to high schools nationwide — showing two pilots sharing a joint prior to takeoff.
In focus-group testing, the image compelled teens of driving age to discuss the responsibilities that pilots, and drivers, have for the safety of their passengers, says Christiane Poulin, professor and Canada Research Chair in Population Health and Addictions at Dalhousie University, as well as a CPHA volunteer.
The campaign's goal is to increase awareness among youth aged 14 to 18 of the risks of cannabis-impaired driving. Canadian youth have one of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world.
"Many young Canadians do not believe cannabis impairs their driving ability," Poulin says.
Clinical evidence shows that smoking pot can produce unwelcome effects behind the wheel, including a shorter attention span, an altered perception of time and distances, and slower reaction times that impair the driver's ability to respond to sudden events in traffic.
Add these to the inexperience and risk-taking behaviours young drivers sometimes demonstrate and it can make for a lethal combination.
Still, Tousaw has some reservations about the campaign.
"The CPHA seems to be operating on the premise that because a lot of young people use cannabis, then this automatically means a lot of people are mixing cannabis and driving," he says.
"Lots of people have been smoking marijuana for the past 30 years. Where are the bodies? You kind of want to see some statistics," he says of the campaign website ( http://www.potanddriving.cpha.ca ).
Indeed, an online literature search reveals inconclusive findings regarding pot as an impediment to safe driving.
"Surprisingly, there seems to be little evidence that drivers who have used cannabis on its own are more likely to cause crashes than drug-free drivers," writes the Canada Safety Council ( http://www.safety-council.org ).
"The results to date of crash culpability studies have failed to demonstrate that drivers with cannabinoids in the blood are significantly more likely than drug-free drivers to be culpable in road crashes," noted Great Britain's department of transport in 2000.
Even Bishop concedes the jury is still out on the risks of pot use by drivers.
"I attended a drug conference a few months ago and I can tell you that the science is still hotly disputed," she says.
Poulin admits that epidemiological research has typically focused on subcategories, specifically mortalities, in which drug use could not be pinpointed accurately.
That's why she's excited by a recent study she was involved in that demonstrates a link between self-reported "cannabis-driving" and vehicle collisions among 6,087 senior high school students in Atlantic Canada. For the purposes of the study, cannabis-driving is defined as operating a vehicle within one hour of smoking a joint.
"Students who did cannabis-driving had a 1.8-fold increased risk of a motor vehicle collision compared with students who did not engage in cannabis-driving," she notes.
In addition, the proportion of students driving under the influence of cannabis (15.1 per cent) was greater than the proportion of students admitting they have driven drunk (11.7 per cent), despite the higher prevalence of alcohol consumption relative to cannabis use.
The numbers support the notion that youth are driving stoned in the belief it is tolerated, and because the practice hasn't been demonized to the same extent as drunk driving.
For the CPHA, the important thing is to get youth and their parents talking about a little-known public health issue.
Youth are receptive to the message of safe marijuana use, says Poulin.
The first Canadian study to examine harm-reduction drug education in schools, conducted in Nova Scotia, has found the strategy to be effective in senior high schools.
"Harm-reduction drug education aims to minimize the negative consequences of substance use," says Poulin. "It simply says, `if you use, be smart about it and protect yourself from harm.'"
"It's not about zero tolerance; it's not a moralistic campaign," says Elinor Wilson, CEO of the CPHA, talking about her association's pot-smoking pilots.
"We're not telling people to not smoke pot — although abstinence is certainly one strategy. What we are saying is if you're going to smoke pot, please don't drive."