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One month after legalization, cannabis-impaired driving is not on the rise

By: Lisa Coxon on November 16, 2018

It’s still early days, but Canadian police say initial data suggest there’s been no spike in cannabis-impaired driving since marijuana was legalized a month ago.

The Canadian Press asked police forces as well as provincial and territorial Crowns across the country if they’d seen an uptick in stoned driving since legalization. Some said it was too soon to provide data, and others said early numbers and “anecdotal impressions” show no dramatic increase in the number of high drivers on the road.

Prior to legalization on Oct. 17, there was much concern over how the new law might affect impaired driving rates, as well as auto insurance rates. surveyed 1,527 Canadian drivers in October and found that 91% of Canadians were unsure of how it would affect their car insurance, and insurance companies were tight-lipped about how legalization might affect driver’s premiums.

Industry experts, like the Insurance Bureau of Canada, were also looking with caution to Colorado, where cannabis was legalized in 2014. Insurance premiums there rose by 54% between 2011 and 2017, and there was an increase in accidents caused by cannabis impairment.

Here in Canada, however, drunk driving charges are still more prevalent than cannabis-related offences — at least so far. Three weeks before legalization, the Manitoba RCMP conducted one cannabis-impaired driving investigation. Three weeks after legalization, it conducted three more.

During each three-week period, the RCMP said it laid about 50 drunk driving charges.

In New Brunswick, Sgt. Joe Cantelo of the Kennebecasis Regional Police Force told the Canadian Press that, over the last few weeks, there have been three impaired driving charges in his community — all “strictly older adults with alcohol.”

“In our department, there’s certainly no rise in impaired driving by (marijuana),” he added.

It’s unclear whether or not this will change once the Canada-wide cannabis shortage comes to an end. In many provinces, legalization got off to a rocky start, with demand far outweighing supply and producers facing production issues and red tape.

Police across the country say the public needs to be more aware of the rules surrounding storing cannabis in your vehicle, as well as passengers smoking it.

Provinces and territories were allowed to create their own laws around how cannabis must be stored in vehicles. Generally speaking, cannabis should be kept in the packaging and out of the driver's reach. Manitoba went further and specified that cannabis should be kept in a secure compartment, like the trunk. Some provinces have an outright ban on passengers smoking in vehicles, like B.C. and Ontario. Police in Saanich, B.C., fined a passenger $230 for smoking a joint inside a vehicle a day after legalization.

In Vancouver, Const. Jason Doucette said police issued 18 traffic-related violations under provincial cannabis laws since legalization, the majority of which had to do with cannabis not being properly stored in the vehicle, or because passengers were consuming the drug in the vehicle.

Newfoundland and Labrador RCMP have made at least six charges for having “open or accessible cannabis in vehicles.”

To determine whether someone is driving under the influence of cannabis, some police forces are still using the standardized field sobriety test, as well as drug recognition expert evaluation, as their cannabis impairment road tests. Others, however, have acquired or are planning to buy the Drager DrugTest 5000, a roadside saliva test that was approved by the federal government. This test, which has received criticism for not being able to operate in Canada’s sub-zero winters, hasn’t been used in the field yet.