Road safety has been a central concern for states looking to legalize recreational cannabis. And beyond the political rhetoric, there are real public concerns here, says the Canadian Automobile Association's (CAA) Ian Jack.
"72% of Canadians are concerned about road safety once recreational cannabis is legalized," Jack said during his World Cannabis Congress presentation. It's stats like this that make cannabis-impaired driving an issue with a lot of eyes on it. In states like Colorado, fears of impaired driving have been successfully leveraged to kill cannabis cafés and other social consumption sights.
In these cases, the messaging often becomes abstinence-based, telling people that smoking a joint will render you unable to drive for 12 hours or more. Jack says these kind of campaigns are unacceptable, and CAA's own educational materials will reflect this, touting a message that is more similar to common conventions around alcohol drinking.
"Just don't do it doesn't work for a legal substance."
A glass of wine at dinner, says Jack, probably won't prevent you from being able to safely drive home, and neither would a small amount of cannabis consumed a few hours before the night is over.
"Our message is not anti-cannabis. Responsible use is our message."
Education, he says is a major piece of the issue, and it certainly won't come quick. Educating people around the dangers of drunk driving took decades, and while cannabis education should come along quicker than that, it will still take some time. As of right now more than 1/4 of Canadians aged 18–34 believe cannabis consumption either doesn't affect their driving skills or actually improves them, numbers that deeply concern Jack.
"Cannabis is an inhibitor," he says. "We don't know how much worse it will make you, but it certainly won't make you better."
You don't need to take Jack's word for it either. CAA has teamed up with the Canadian government and cannabis expert Dr. Mark Ware to conduct a study that will find out exactly how driving performance is impacted by cannabis consumption.
"Participants will be given the amount of THC found in an 'average joint.' Then they'll be tested on a driving simulator 1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours later and so on."
And while the results of the study won't be ready for some time, Jack says "the preliminary results are something we can work with." Meaning that safety campaigns will be able to advocate for best practices of waiting 3–4 hours after smoking up before getting behind the wheel. He also warned that drivers will want to take these suggestions seriously as police may be inclined to over-enforce impaired driving laws until cannabis use becomes more normalized. This is particularly so, since there are no reliable roadside testing procedures for cannabis impairedness. Instead, police will be relying on saliva swabs which will provide a yes/no for THC in a person's body, but can't determine how much the person has consumed, or even when, as a positive test can happen days after the cannabis has been consumed. Otherwise they will have to use a "highly invasive blood test" which would tie up hospital resources and can't be processed quickly. He says having a "breathalyzer-like" testing device that could be implemented at roadside in an noninvasive fashion is not yet available.
Of course, even an instrument like that couldn't determine what is too much THC for one person versus another.
"It's like blood alcohol levels. At 0.79 you're fine but suddenly at 0.8 you're drunk? Unfortunately these are blunt instruments."