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Canadian Driving Laws Must Adapt To Realities Of Legal Marijuana

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It looks like Canada is well on its way to legalizing marijuana. Our federal government has voiced its support for legalizing the drug, and changes to the Criminal Code are expected by next spring.

But it's not all fun and games.

Before marijuana is legalized, a number of serious concerns will need to be addressed. This will involve participation from both our federal and provincial governments. After all, most of the practical responsibilities associated with adapting to its presence will fall into the hands of our provincial governments. These will include responsibilities such as the sale and distribution the drug, as well as the regulation of highways and roadways.

Like other provinces in this country, British Columbia already has a provincial system in place to deal with drug-impaired driving. This is in addition to the federal Criminal Code offences related to driving while impaired. Our provincial laws are primarily embodied in the Motor Vehicle Act. They are intended to immediately address and curtail drug-impaired driving, and mainly come in the form of short driving prohibitions which are aimed at taking drug-impaired drivers off the road and keeping them off until they have sobered up.

But will these sanctions still be enough when marijuana use is finally legal? Or will we need something more in order to protect our communities?

There is nothing to indicate that marijuana use will increase by any significant numbers once the drug is legalized.

The discussion around adapting the law to deal with cannabis impaired drivers operates on one, primary assumption. It assumes that more people will use the drug more frequently once it is legalized. This, in turn, will create a greater threat of drug-impaired drivers.

However, there is nothing to indicate that marijuana use will increase by any significant numbers once the drug is legalized.

In British Columbia, marijuana has been relatively accessible to a large number of people for many years. Our province, and particularly the lower mainland, is riddled with marijuana dispensaries. Despite on-going controversy over their validity, these dispensaries make the drug largely available for quick, easy purchase. If one is inclined to smoke marijuana in the lower mainland, chances are they will be able to do it. In my view, it is unlikely that the legalization of marijuana will substantially change the cannabis culture in and around the metro-Vancouver area.

But what about more rural areas where marijuana is less accessible?

Despite what you may expect, the legalization of marijuana appears to have no effect on consumption rates. Surveys in Colorado, where the drug is now legal, have shown no significant change in marijuana usage since legalization. In fact, it appears that teen use of the drug has continued to steadily decline over the years. The same observations have been made in Washington.

Therefore, from what we can tell, there is no positive correlation between the rate of marijuana use and its legalization.

Still, education will be key in ensuring that our roadways are safe and our communities are protected from the potential treat of marijuana-impaired drivers.

Contrary to some popularly held beliefs, mixing marijuana and driving is dangerous.

There is little doubt that - no matter who you are - cannabis will have a detrimental effect.

Cannabis causes a wide variety of temporary cognitive and physical delays. After using the drug, users will experience compromised reaction time, visual function, concentration, short-term memory and the ability to perform divided-attention tasks. The degree of impairment will, of course, depend on a variety of factors, including the user's degree of past experience with the drug and the quantity consumed.

But there is little doubt that -- no matter who you are -- cannabis will have a detrimental effect on your ability to drive and that cannabis impaired drivers pose a serious threat to public safety.

This is exacerbated by the fact that, after alcohol, cannabis is the most commonly detected substance among drivers who have been arrested for impaired driving.

And while studies have shown that marijuana use is on the decline, they also seem to indicate that marijuana use in drivers is on the rise. This could be due to the fact that large-scale studies in North America did not specifically account for marijuana use until very recently, or because attitudes towards the drug are becoming more relaxed. It could also be due to a combination of factors, including these, and related to society's changing perception of marijuana use in light of its continuing legalization.

No matter what the reason, however, it is up to our government to ensure that the public is educated about responsible marijuana use and the dangers of marijuana-impaired driving.

Legislative changes must be made and a scheme will need to be developed.

The first step in developing an efficacious scheme to deal with marijuana-impaired driving will involve technological advancements in drug identification and detection. After all, detecting marijuana use in drivers and assessing the degree of impairment is considerably more complex than it is for alcohol. Systems for detecting alcohol impairment have had years of development and research devoted to them, but the same is simply not true for marijuana.

Still, though, there are a number of promising new devices on the market that may help police to identify marijuana impaired drivers, while minimally impeding individual rights and liberties.

Test projects in Colorado have equipped officers with five different types of oral fluid testers. These testers are intended to analyze driver saliva samples and detect the presence of marijuana on the spot. Meanwhile, police are being trained to identify signs of marijuana impairment in drivers, just as they do for alcohol. The results of this project are likely to have a significant impact on our laws as they develop.

After at least one effective marijuana-detecting method has been identified, legislative changes must be made and a scheme will need to be developed. The scheme will need to balance the liberties of citizens with the need for public safety.

I anticipate that increased administrative sanctions will be developed under provincial legislation. I also hope that an effective method for disputing such allegations will also be put into place. This will ensure that drivers who are falsely accused of marijuana impaired driving are not stigmatized and penalized for such behaviour. It will be an essential facet to creating a legally valid and principled regime.

The bottom line is that, while the general public grows impatient on perceived government inaction towards the legalization of marijuana, the wheels are in motion -- but they are complex and there is a lot to consider. In the end, only time will tell how this process will work out, and until then, I will eagerly await the results.

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