Marijuana-related Impaired Driving Charges haven’t increased since Legalization

Posted by Stevenson Whelton LLP
January 02, 2020

With the exception of Alberta, which reported a two-fold increase, police across Canada say they haven’t seen a measurable or significant rise in cannabis driving-related charges in the six-month period since pot was legalized (Global News, Apr 29).  Some of the most frequent charges laid this year relate to storing pot in one’s vehicle (unlawful transportation of cannabis in a vehicle).  Police departments say they’re concentrating most of their efforts on the drugs that are killing Canadians, notably methamphetamines and opiates such as fentanyl.  

However, there’s another reason why we may not be seeing an increase in impaired driving charges for marijuana.  Testing a driver for cannabis impairment is more complex and onerous than testing for alcohol impairment and police may be less inclined to test drivers for that reason. Testing for marijuana requires a blood test, which needs to be completed in a hospital within two hours of the accident or the road side check.

It can sometimes be quite challenging to make it to a hospital without incident to complete the test within 2 hours. According to Global News (July 2019), the majority of marijuana-related driving charges laid since legalization were in small towns and rural parts of Canada, and very few were laid in our big cities, including Toronto.  Yet, it's not likely that persons choosing to drive after consuming marijuana reside only in rural communities, so the inconsistency may relate to the difficulty in getting doctors in busy hospitals to complete a drug test, when they have seriously injury patients to attend to.   

If the Canadian statistics on marijuana-related driving charges do accurately reflect car accident injuries associated with marijuana use, then Canada’s experience is more favourable than what occurred in Colorado. A May 2019 report in Science Daily states that after recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado, there was a 10 percent increase in car accidents, and a 5 percent increase in injury or death due to overdoses and alcohol abuse, when compared to other states.   However, an interesting finding, based on a review of 28 million hospital records, is that there was no appreciable increase in hospital stays or admissions in Colorado after recreational cannabis was legalized. 

The American study also found that fewer patients were diagnosed with chronic pain after marijuana was legalized.  In Colorado, for example, there was a 5 percent reduction in hospital admissions for chronic pain. This finding agrees with a 2017 National Academy of Science study finding that there is considerable evidence that cannabis can reduce pain.    

The Science Daily report notes that data relating to the effects of cannabis certainly demonstrate the need to strongly advocate against driving while under the influence of a mind-altering substance such as marijuana. On the other hand, it’s too simplistic to label the legalization of marijuana as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because this policy change has complex effects and we need to look all the aspects of marijuana’s use and its effects on public health and injury.  In the case of Colorado, the researchers were unable to explain why hospital visits generally remained the same and without more data, don’t know if this means the beneficial effects of cannabis counterbalanced the negative effects.

Nevertheless, on the question of impaired driving, the Canadian experience so far may be misleading.  Have marijuana related driving accidents really not increased since legalization or are police simply checking fewer drivers for marijuana consumption, except in cases of marked impairment or a serious accident?

R. v. Scarlett (2019) is a criminal trial involving a case where there was good reason to suspect drug impairment.  Witnesses phoned 911 because they were worried that someone might be hurt, after observing a van being driven erratically, swerving between lanes and driving repeatedly onto the shoulder, on Highway 401.  Police pulled the van over after following the vehicle and observing the same erratic driving behaviour. The vehicle and driver both smelled of marijuana and the driver’s eyes were glassy and red, so police charged the driver with impaired driving.  Subsequent testing of the driver’s urine at the police station indicated both marijuana and cocaine.  A judge ruled the driver was guilty of drug-impaired driving and the charge was upheld on appeal in 2019.  And, the witnesses who called police in the Scarlett case may have saved a life or prevented serious injury to other road users.

If you were injured in a car accident caused by an impaired driving or another negligent driving action, you may be entitled to compensation for your economic losses and pain and suffering. Learn about your legal rights by talking to an experienced Oakville accident lawyer at Stevenson Whelton MacDonald & Swan.  We welcome your questions and can help you decide on your best course of action going forward.






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