Many cannabis users aren't convinced that marijuana causes impaired driving: Survey

by Maura Forrest

Only half of respondents who had consumed cannabis in the last year felt that marijuana use affects driving, according to a Health Canada survey.

OTTAWA - A new Health Canada survey shows that Canadians are hazy on the risks of driving high.

Only half of respondents who had consumed cannabis in the last year felt that marijuana use affects driving, according to the Canadian Cannabis Survey, released Tuesday, compared to 75 percent of all respondents. Another 24 percent said it depends, while 19 percent said cannabis doesn't affect driving.

Of those who had used marijuana in the last 12 months, 39 percent said they had driven within two hours of consuming cannabis at some point in their lives. Forty percent of those said they had done it in the previous 30 days, and 15 percent said they had driven after using cannabis in combination with alcohol. Only two percent reported an interaction with police related to driving under the influence.

The survey results come as Ottawa grapples with how best to crack down on impaired driving after marijuana is legalized, which the Trudeau government has promised will happen by July 2018.

"Driving while impaired by cannabis or other drugs is dangerous and illegal," said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in a statement on Tuesday. "The message is simple - don't drive high."

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said the results "reinforce why we have invested in targeted public education and awareness efforts." The federal government has announced $46 million over the next five years to be spent on education, awareness and surveillance related to cannabis use.

But Conservative justice critic Michael Cooper said the findings show the government's public awareness campaign "has been a failure."

"It barely got off the ground until the fall," he said, adding that when the Liberal's marijuana legislation was before committee this fall, several witnesses testified about "misconceptions amongst the public about the impact of marijuana use."

Under Bill C 46, which sets out major changes to Canada's impaired driving laws in anticipation of marijuana legalization, people found to have two nanograms of THC (the primary psychoactive in cannabis) per millilitre of blood within two hours of driving could be fined up to $1,000, while those with more than five nanograms could face up to 10 years in jail.

But critics have argued there is no clear correlation between the amount of THC in the blood and the level of impairment, which can vary widely from person to person. "What it could mean is that some individuals who really aren't impaired are going to be caught and other people who are impaired are going to get away with drug impaired driving," said Cooper.

He said the survey results show that Canada isn't ready for legal pot on July 1, 2018. "When legalization comes into effect, more Canadians are going to be consuming marijuana and more Canadians are going to be on our roads driving impaired," he said. "This is a rushed and arbitrary timeline."

Overall, just 22 percent of respondents said they used cannabis in the previous 12 months for non medical purposes, with those aged 16 to 24 about twice as likely to have used the drug in the past year. Of those, most reported using cannabis fewer than three days per month, while 18 percent said they used cannabis daily. On average, they spent nearly $75 a month on cannabis products, with women spending less than men.

The survey specifically targeted marijuana users, so the results are not representative of the overall population.

Nearly 80 percent of respondents believed that cannabis can be habit forming, though that number drops to 64 percent among recent users. About half felt that pot has a positive effect on mood, creativity, anxiety and sleep, while about 60 percent believe it has a negative effect on motivation, memory, concentration, attention and decision making.

The survey also shows that smoking is still the preferred method of consuming cannabis. In total, 94 percent of respondents who had used cannabis in the previous year had smoked it, while 34 percent consumed edibles, 20 percent used a vape pen and 14 percent used a vaporizer.

Respondents were also asked about their attitudes to alcohol, cannabis and tobacco. While more than half felt that alcohol is completely socially acceptable, only 28 percent felt the same about smoking pot and consuming edibles, and just 19 percent felt the same about tobacco.

The survey was conducted between March and May 2017, and included responses from 9,215 people aged 16 and older. Of those, 2,650 respondents said they had used cannabis in the previous 12 months, either for medical or recreational purposes.

Both of the Liberal's bills related to marijuana legalization are now before the Senate.