Parliament: Bill C-46 – Raising issues surrounding cannabis consumption and impaired driving legislation

Elizabeth May

C-46. This bill presents a number of complicated and novel problems for lawmakers. I will say first that I will vote for this bill at second reading. It should get to committee.

There are many things in here that we need to move ahead with. I hope that my speech can reflect on the areas where the bill will need amendments. It is particularly in the sections that would enable the Governor General to make regulations in the future that we should approach regulation-making with caution.

Let me start by saying what is important about Bill C-46.

It is important that we do more to deal with the carnage on our roads caused by people whose judgment is not only impaired by drinking but who also fail to understand that an automobile is a lethal weapon. Persons getting behind the wheel when they have had anything to drink at all should be as socially unacceptable today as people lighting up a cigarette on an elevator.

Social norms change over time. The social norms once allowed us to give the people around us the present of second-hand smoke without thinking anything about it, but it is now viewed as a reckless activity. One would have thought that with the attention and the hard work of wonderful groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, it would be clear to all Canadians as responsible citizens that if they have had anything to drink at all, they do not drive. Unfortunately, we see far too many examples of innocent people, children, or whole families killed on our highways by people who have gotten behind the wheel when they should never have done so. We need to do more to stop the threat of drunk drivers on our roads. This bill would begin to do that. This bill would begin to take some important steps.

Certainly it is important for people to know that they can be pulled over on reasonable grounds and have a breath test applied by a roadside breathalyzer. On reasonable grounds, police officers would be able to stop more people for randomized breathalyzer testing on the side of the road. It is important to note that Bill C-46 would require a police officer to have reasonable grounds to believe a person is committing an offence or at any time in the last three hours has committed an offence as a result of the consumption of drugs or alcohol. Throughout this bill there are requirements for reasonable grounds. Still, the threshold for giving a roadside breathalyzer test is going to be reduced, with the goal of getting more people who are drinking and driving off our roads, and that is important.

The risk here is that we would be conflating the legalization of cannabis with problems of driving and substance abuse, and this is where we need to be careful. In 2014, an astonishing 74,800 cases were reported across Canada of driving impaired due to alcohol or drug use. There were 74,800 cases in a single year reported by police. Of those cases, 97% were alcohol-related and 3% involved drugs. That is not to say that drugs are not the problem, but it is clear that in order of priority, alcohol is the bigger problem as a percentage, empirically, on our roads.

However, then we begin to dive into it. Certainly with the legalization of cannabis, reasonable concerns have been raised. What if people are impaired by having imbibed, smoked, or eaten cannabis and are now under the influence of cannabis and have THC in their system? This is where, as I dive into the evidence, it gets a lot more complicated, because if we are going to base our policies on evidence, it is not at all clear that the same kind of physiological effects occur from imbibing cannabis as from drinking alcohol.

For example, studies by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, as reported in The New York Times, talk about the estimates from a number of studies. In the case of the dangers of drunken driving, for instance, 20-year-old drivers with a blood alcohol content of 0.08%, which is the legal limit across Canada, had an almost 20-fold increase in the risk of a fatal accident.

When the researchers look at those who have imbibed cannabis, they find that the effect of using cannabis does affect driving, but it is within the same range as the legal allowable levels of blood alcohol. It is not at all clear. According to a 2012 study from the Journal of Psychopharmacology, only 30% of people who were under the influence of THC failed a field test of their ability to show physical coordination and good cognitive reflexes. The effect of smoking marijuana is clearly going to be very different from the effect of drinking and driving.

This is again research from the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. For the purpose of explaining this, I am going to use the term stoned drivers and drunk drivers. They concluded that stoned drivers drive differently from drunken ones and have different deficits. Drunk drivers tend to drive faster than normal and overestimate their skill, whereas the opposite is true for stoned drivers. More worrying, when we are dealing with the application of criminal law, is that those who are habitual users of marijuana can have levels of THC in their systems that do not affect their judgment. The metabolizing in the body of cannabis is very different from alcohol. To spot someone who is drunk, we need to test for ethanol. To spot someone who has been using cannabis, we look for THC, but the THC can be present in the bloodstream days after the last use and when a person is not actually impaired.

As we are going forward with developing tests and deciding when someone is criminally responsible, we need to approach this problem differently. If we find a level of blood alcohol of 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood, we know someone was driving over the limit. That is not going to be so easy to figure out with THC.

Those who are studying this recommend some interesting approaches, including in the very useful study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, from February 2015, called “Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk”. I recommend this to other MPs who are looking for data. It is from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation. They looked at the adjustment for age, gender, ethnicity, alcohol concentration levels, and so on. They did not find that high risk correlated with drug use at all when they corrected for these other social factors.

What they recommend is fascinating. They say that if we are going to put resources into avoiding people being killed on the road, it would be far better to focus on banning establishments for imbibing cannabis away from home. I want to underscore this, because I do not think anyone has mentioned it in the debate so far. If we are legalizing cannabis, as we are, do not have facilities and establishments that encourage people to get in their cars to drive to a place to have cannabis. Encourage there being no driving involved and create the social norms that say do not drive at all when imbibing cannabis.

It is going to be very hard, and a failing test for the science, to find mechanisms for roadside testing for THC. It is far better to focus on where the threat to life and limb clearly is. It is overwhelmingly people who get behind the wheel of a car after having too much to drink. Frankly, I think a glass of wine or a beer is too much to drink to get behind the wheel of a car, yet we have a social construct and culture that there is nothing wrong with it. I have always loved the show Cheers, with the friendly guy behind the bar. Take a bus there. Take the subway there. We need to change our norms around what is okay, because a car is a lethal weapon.

Finally, I want to hope that when we take the bill to committee, we look at unintentional consequences. If we make it easier for police officers to pull someone over for a breathalyzer, we need to watch for issues of racial profiling. We need to watch for the unintended consequences of additional searches that take place once someone is pulled to the side of the road.

I am not standing against the bill, by any means, but I think these issues are far more complicated than the debate we have had so far tonight. I look forward to seeing the bill sent to committee. I hope that when we look at regulating THC and finding ways to do roadside testing that we do not start with the assumption that if we can find THC in a person’s body they have been reckless in their use of an automobile. Those two may not correlate the way blood alcohol levels indeed correlate toward recklessness and unsafe driving.