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Enjoy 4/20, Canada! Just not from behind the wheel of your car

Happy 4/20!

If you don’t know what that is, there are a few theories perpetually duking it out to be the “right” one; but regardless of its origin, it means smoking pot.

On April 20th every year, at 4:20 pm, look for groups of like-minded individuals getting a little high with the help of their friends, whether legally or not.

Of course here in Canada, that is now legal for those folks 19 and over. During the rollout to legalization, many, many Aunt Bees were knotting their knickers, worried sick the entire country would become one large smoldering joint.

Instead, careful oversight by Statistics Canada is tracking marijuana consumption across the country every three months. By the end of 2018 – with pot legal – numbers showed that in January of that year, 15 per cent of Canadians used marijuana in some capacity. By the end of the year, that number had spiked to—well, 15 per cent.

A valid concern has always been about the impact that legal marijuana will have on how we drive—and, more importantly, how we crash. While fatal crashes due to alcohol have been decreasing, the latest statistics suggest that impairment from pot (and other drugs) is on the rise. A report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) suggests that in 2010, 39.1 per cent of Canadian road fatalities involved alcohol, and 34.2 involved drugs; those numbers are slowly switching. A report earlier this year shows impairment from drugs now at 40 per cent, while alcohol sits at 33 per cent.

The problem with this ball of statistics is parsing out how they’re arrived at. When we’re told by StatsCan’s most recent surveys that 5 per cent of (usually younger) people drive with someone who has smoked marijuana, and that 14 per cent of those who have used it have themselves gotten behind the wheel within two hours, it’s self-reporting.

Statistics taken from roadside stops by police and fatal crash scenes where autopsies have revealed consumption are more precise. American cities who legalized ahead of us report higher use of cannabis among drivers, but also report it’s because now they are looking for it. These factors make it hard to compare existing data with its historical counterparts.

pot driving Enjoy 4/20, Canada! Just not from behind the wheel of your car

Defining the limits of “stoned driving” are proving to be difficult indeed.


Other factors that cloud those statistics are important. Frequently, drivers combine alcohol with other drugs, most commonly cannabis. Often, results will indicate the presence of both, but it can be difficult to prove which caused the more significant impairment. The term “impaired driving” has replaced drunk driving for a very good reason. Cannabis stays in the system longer than alcohol, and cannabis can have a wide range of effects on those who consume it.

Even how they consume it matters. Police in most jurisdictions have machines (called Dragers) that will test saliva for THC; most aren’t embracing them, because as Drager themselves state, “[o]ur device is there to really just identify whether there’s a presence of THC. It’s not meant to measure impairment and we never claimed that it does.”

Dr. Andrea Furlan, a Toronto Rehab Foundation scientist, suggests a simpler template: don’t drive for at least four hours after you smoke pot, and don’t drive for at least twelve hours after ingesting edibles. Police have long known how to detect that something is scrambling your brain, and a blood test back at HQ will tell them what it is.

Anne Marie Thomas is an insurance expert at InsuranceHotline. She notes that while the government is closely monitoring the results of legalizing marijuana and the impact it will have on our roads, it will take more than a few months to have a clear picture with statistical backup. “Legislation hasn’t changed behaviour,” she notes. “It’s just made it more identifiable.”

She doesn’t hesitate at all, however, in revealing how much driving under the influence of any impairing substance will suckerpunch you when it comes to your auto insurance. Recent changes to Canadian law under Bill C-46 mean increased fines, suspensions, impoundments and even jail time for driving while impaired.

If that doesn’t scare you sober, remember that, “get convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and watch your premium double—at the minimum.” Thomas cites that hardening market across the Canadian insurance landscape, with companies taking big losses, and points out that even if you have the money to dig your way out of an impaired charge, you will have a harder time finding an insurance company willing to take you on. Never before has having a designated driver been such a cheap decision.

So, the sky has not fallen, despite the hand-wringing. There will always be drivers who choose to drive while impaired – whatever that impairment – and we will all continue to deal with the often-tragic fallout. Just know that celebrating anything, including that hippiest of fests, 4/20, should be done when you don’t plan on driving.

As for the origins of “420”? It wasn’t a police call number, nor did the Grateful Dead invent it (surprisingly). Instead, it seems a group of five high school friends in San Rafael, California would meet every day at 4:20 to go treasure hunting for a legendary abandoned marijuana crop somewhere in Point Reyes forest. They never found it, but they apparently enjoyed booting around in a ‘66 Impala, smoking weed and looking for it.


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