Drugs and driving: Exposing the myths

Panel hosted by Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and the Centre for Addiction Research at Dalhousie

- September 30, 2011

(Pam Collins photo)
(Pam Collins photo)

One in three fatally injured drivers test positive for cannabis use. Even more alarming, 15.6 million road trips each year involve a driver who recently used cannabis.

Is driving while high the same as driving drunk? Panelists came together to debunk the myths of drugs and driving at the event “Smoke and Mirrors: Youth, Cannabis and Driving.” The event was part of the Barry V. King Lecture Series hosted by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) and the Centre for Addiction Research at Dalhousie (CARD).

Over 50 people gathered at the McInnes room along with hundreds of people around the world via webcast to learn about the dangers of cannabis use and driving.

False sense of security

According to professionals, the main issue with cannabis use is distracted driving. Most people believe cannabis enhances driving ability. Dr. Mark Asbridge, a Dal associate professor in Community Health and Epidemiology and Emergency Medicine, explained that the relaxed feeling and lack of visual perception caused by cannabis gives drivers a false sense of security.

“People think they’re driving better because they think they’re driving slower,” says Prof. Asbridge. “The drug affects decision-making when it comes to things like changing lanes. It’s not safe.”

So how much is too much? According to Prof. Asbridge, it all depends on how much the person has inhaled, the quality of the cannabis, and their metabolic rate.

“Cannabis is absorbed through the blood within 10 minutes,” says Prof. Asbridge. “The effects peak fast. It’s not easy to say one joint or two is too much. The safe message is to stay away from using cannabis and driving.”

Even if drivers believe there’s no danger, they will likely get caught. Constable Scott MacDonald described how police officers test for impaired driving through the Standardized Field Sobriety Test. Under the Criminal Code, drivers suspected of impaired driving must go through the test and Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) - a drug use evaluation conducted by a police officer.

Through the 12-step DRE evaluation, police officers have been fairly accurate in detecting drug use. Of the 291 people arrested last year of impaired driving, 273 people were found to have ingested drugs or alcohol with 103 people found to have used cannabis alone. People charged with impaired driving through cannabis face the same jail time as a drunk driver.

“In the past, it was difficult to get compelling evidence that a person was impaired by drugs,” says Const. MacDonald. “We can now thoroughly figure out if someone is impaired by driving.”

Underage and under the influence

The major problem is youth driving under the influence. Between 14 to 21 per cent of teens in grades 7 to 12 have used cannabis and drove within one hour. This is similar to driving while intoxicated with 12 to 20 per cent of teens in the same group using alcohol.

Efforts are being made by youth groups to show the dangers of using drugs and driving. Sarah Blades, co-chair of the Nova Scotia Road Safety Youth Committee (NSRSYC) spoke about how youth need to be engaged differently when talking about cannabis.

“Traditional awareness is not enough,” says Ms. Blades. “Our pop culture shows people using cannabis and there are no consequences. We need to respect youth involvement in these issues.”

Katie Spargue became involved in cannabis prevention at her high school. As president of the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) at Amherst Regional High School, Spargue was touched by the story of Kevin Brooks, a victim of impaired driving. He was paralyzed and his best friend was killed in a car accident.

“What gets to students are these stories,” says Ms. Spargue. “Hearing these stories makes us think that this could happen to us.”

The Barry V. King lecture in named in honour of Mr. King’s commitment as a police officer to promote community safety.

“Our youth need guidance and reinforcement in dealing with this issue,” said Mr. King. “Our goal should be to create the safest communities in the world.”


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