By Astrid Van Den Broek
Spring 2006, Vol 9 No 3
The signs of an alcohol-impaired driver are quite clear: There’s a lingering smell of alcohol in the car, and a breathalyzer shows the driver is over the legal limit. But when it comes to determining whether a driver has been smoking marijuana, the task is trickier: There’s no breathalyzer for smoking marijuana, and the legal limit for cannabis in undefined in terms of its impact on driving ability. In fact, driving while impaired by marijuana seems to be where drinking and driving was 20 years ago – murky laws to handle these offenses and a lack of concern in the mind of the public.
Yet statistics show that the number of young people driving under the influence of marijuana may be rising. The Ontario Student Drug Use Survey, released every two years by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, looked at cannabis and driving among students for the first time in 2001 and found that more students – about 20 per cent – were driving after using cannabis than alcohol. The Ottawa-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation found that 1.5 per cent of drivers surveyed in its 2002 Road Safety Monitor had used marijuana within two hours of taking the wheel. The survey also found that young men are most likely to drive after using marijuana or other illegal drugs. One-third of those who drove after using marijuana also drove after drinking.
The problem isn’t exclusive to Canada: The Monitoring the Future Study, an onging study of substance use among U.S. high school students, found that 15 per cent of teens reported driving after using cannabis.Some experts report that teenagers in particular are more open now than ever to using marijuana. And they harbour the belief that it does not affect driving. Many young people have the impression that when they drive after using cannabis, they’re able to compensate or they’re cautious, so they think they’re safe drivers. But until recently, it wasn’t only youth who failed to see the danger of mixing cannabis with driving. “Based on the best science that was available in the late 90s, it was thought that cannabis didn’t affect collision risk,” says Dr. Robert Mann, a senior scientist at CAMH. “Research has long been grappling with the issue of exactly how much cannabis affects driving skills,” he says. “But we have enough information now to know it does impair skills and increase collision risk.” Mann points out that cannabis affects key driving skills, such as reaction time, ability to pay attention and tracking skills.
Interestingly, youth in Canada have received a recent message that may have forced the perception that smoking up is safe. “Some young people believe that being prosecuted for smoking marijuana isn’t a significant concern. There’s not as big a fear of getting caught by the police the way there is with alcohol,” says Eleanor Wilson, CEO of the Ottawa-based Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA). “We’re into the decriminalization issue. If you’re caught with pot on you, not amounts that look as if you’re a dealer, you won’t end up with a criminal record. Young people are very confused about that.”
Current efforts to combat the myth around marijuana use and driving are focusing on public education campaigns (similar in a sense to what was done with alcohol in the late 1980s). With funding from Canada’s Drug Strategy, the Canadian Public Health Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are tackling the issue. They recently launched three public service campaigns targeted at young males – key marijuana users. “We’re using humour to get them to recognize that when they’re high, they shouldn’t be driving,” says Andrew Murie, CEO of MADD, based in Oakville, Ontario. “It’s playing on those ‘stoner’ images.” In one ad, a teenager, after smoking up, heads out the door for his car, and his rolling paper starts talking to him, telling him he’s too high and shouldn’t be driving.
Murie says MADD struggled with the approach: Do they promote a message assuming use has taken place, or do they promote staying away from cannabis altogether? “We wrestled with this user group, and concluded that an abstinence message – ‘Don’t use cannabis’ – wasn’t going to work.” MADD has also included the cannabis and driving message in its touring multi-media show, where as many as 800,000 high school students a year watch a show on giant screens about alcohol, other drugs and driving. For now, cannabis will continue to remain a second player in MADD’s focus. “We’re still about 80/20 per cent split on alcohol and drugs, respectively,” says Murie. “But young people are not sitting in perfect silos just doing alcohol or just doing drugs. There’s a lot of crossover.”
Meanwhile, the CPHA has also launched a separate awareness campaign. Its posters in schools and centres for addiction depict two pilots in the cockpit of an airplane, smoking marijuana (see pictured). The caption below asks: “If it doesn’t make sense here, why does it make sense when you drive?” “Because of the visual image and the materials for discussion, it’s captured people’s imagination,” says Wilson. But public education isn’t the only tactic. Last year, a study from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, examined whether a harm reduction approach to substance use would work. The study involved junior and senior high school students in four schools on the East Coast, and included approaches such as direct conversations with youth and student-led initiatives. Interestingly, age and maturity played a role in who actually received the harm reduction message. “Senior students figured out quickly that you can choose not to use, and if you choose to use, you can use it this way or that way and decrease the risk associated with use,” says Dr. Christiane Poulin, a professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Population Health and Addictions Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie. “We found that harm reduction as an approach was acceptable and effective for senior high school students,” she says. “Junior high school students misinterpreted harm reduction as permission to use. They were simply not mature enough or far along enough emotionally or intellectually to be able to split hairs between deciding to use or not to use. The only real solution to any harm reduction was to not use.”
In the end, Poulin believes a hands-on approach works well. “We keep saying that teenagers don’t think about the future – well, they do. It may be the near future of ‘who’s going to sleep with me tonight,’ or the more distant future of ‘how am I going to get to this university,’ but they do work out very sophisticated approaches,” she says.
After these first steps at addressing cannabis and driving, what lies ahead? Mann notes that the science behind the issue is critical – determining just exactly how and how much marijuana affects driving. The CPHA plans to expand its campaign to northern Canada. As for MADD, Murie identifies three key steps that need to take place: “Without that authorization and the ability to demand a drug recognition evaluation, kids are still going to know that the police powers on dealing with this issue are rather weak and almost impossible to enforce under current legislation,” he says. “Once the legislation is passed, police need the training so there are enough drug recognition experts out there. Finally, government and agencies have to take this issue very seriously. This is not something that you throw a bunch of money at for a couple of years and the problem then goes away. We need to make awareness happen a lot faster than we did on alcohol.”