It’s time to plan for the imminent legalization of marijuana in Canada.
While there has been much media attention devoted to the federal government’s plans to legalize marijuana for recreational use, there has been much less discussion on just what that will mean for drivers, let alone fleet operators.
Fulfilling a campaign promise from 2015, the Trudeau government introduced a series of bills earlier this spring that will bring about marijuana legalization in Canada with a target date of July 1st, 2018.
First, it should be noted there is a significant distinction between decriminalization and full legalization, as is the government’s intent. The former means that simple personal possession and usage would no longer be a criminal offence. Full legalization, however, is a much more complex undertaking, requiring the establishment of regulatory frameworks around production, product standards, and distribution, as well as road safety and legal standards of impairment.
There are a number of potential roadblocks the government must cross before full legalization takes place, although some guidelines have already been indicated. The government has suggested that 18 should be the legal age to consume cannabis. Possession of 30 grams or less would be legal for personal use. Producers would have to be registered by the federal government, although, like alcohol, distribution would be governed by the provinces.
Impairment & road safety
The feds have also outlined protocols for impairment and road safety. Much like they do for alcohol, law enforcement would be able to demand a roadside saliva test to determine if marijuana was recently consumed. Tests for active THC—the main intoxicant in cannabis—would be conducted to determine levels within two hours of driving. Offences would start at two nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood, ranging from a $1,000 fine all the way to a 10 year prison sentence for repeat offenders with five nanograms or more, or for those offences where THC and alcohol appear together (see sidebar).
Beyond marijuana, the federal government has also indicated it may take a tougher stance against drunk driving, with the justice minister suggesting the legal blood alcohol limit for criminal impairment may be dropped to .05 from the current .08. In addition, the government has committed to an educational campaign in advance of the legal roll out.
What are the effects of cannabis impairment on drivers?
While there are a number of studies attempting to measure the effects of cannabis on driving, they are, as of yet, not entirely conclusive as to how those effects may be quantified. Some studies have found a significant impact on driving skills, while others less so.
Research does, however, indicate there is a synergistic effect when using both alcohol and cannabis that can be more detrimental than either drug alone. Some studies have found that cannabis paired with alcohol can lead to a 36 percent reduction in reaction time and be equivalent to a .14 blood alcohol count (BAC).
Studies from those US states where marijuana has been legalized have indicated fatal motor vehicle collisions where drivers have tested positive for cannabis have increased significantly. In the case of Washington State, they doubled from 2014 to 2017, while in Colorado they have tripled over a 10 year period. Whether the entirety of the increase can be attributed to growing cannabis usage and impairment, as opposed to increased awareness and testing among law enforcement, has yet to be determined.
In British Columbia, of 1,100 individuals who were admitted to a Vancouver trauma centre as a result of motor vehicle collisions, 15 percent had a BAC of over .08, 12.6 percent had used cannabis at some point, and 7.3 percent tested positive for THC, indicating recent usage.
What does this all mean for fleets?
For fleet operators, even those with well-defined fleet policies and robust safety programs, it is imperative to plan for the imminent legalization of marijuana and its impact of road safety and enforcement.
Fleet professionals should confer with their human resources and legal departments to update policies to include specific terms around marijuana usage. General language around illicit drug usage will likely no longer be adequate. HR very likely is already dealing with these issues in a general sense if not relating to vehicle usage. Similarly, any policy changes as well as the specific legal changes around operation of a vehicle and potential marijuana impairment should be communicated to managers and drivers alike.
Educational campaigns should include information on a driver’s legal responsibility as well as any company specific ones that may exceed the basic legal standards.