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Legal limit for driving high? Local advocate says more research is needed

Last Updated Mar 31, 2018 at 1:00 pm EST

(iStock photo)

It’s one of the biggest concerns for many as we inch closer towards marijuana legalization across Canada – how will law enforcement deal with impaired drivers?

Last month at Kelowna City Council in British Columbia, a councillor asked a similar question to a RCMP superintendent – “I know I can have one beer and still drive and that’s the limit. What will it be like with pot?”

The officer didn’t have much to say – other than public education is generally behind on this, and federal rules remain under discussion.

Peter Thurley is a local advocate for medicinal cannabis, and says that’s a familiar sentiment.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges we have as we head into a new legal cannabis regime. There are a variety of reasons why cannabis isn’t so easy to deal with as alcohol is. One of the key factors is cannabis is fat-soluble and is not blood-soluble – so there’s no real proven correlation between the actual presence of THC in the body and definitive impairment. That’s because THC has to be processed through the fat in your body – and doesn’t go straight into the bloodstream.”

What that means is, it’s not going to be as easy as some may think to determine marijuana impairment.

“In the view of many, that’s the most important piece of the legalization picture. We do not want people impaired on our roads, we do not want cannabis users impaired on our roads, and we do not want medical patients driving impaired. Unfortunately right now, the government is rushing into a piece of legislation – without necessarily having the science behind it.”

Thurley adds he does think the legislation needs to be passed – but he would’ve liked to see more consultations, particularly with patients, leading up to it.

When it comes to adequately establishing a ‘safe limit’ for THC in the blood – Thurley says it’s another difficult question to answer.

“Largely because research is currently ongoing. For the most part, we don’t have what we need to determine that right now. What’s being written into the legislation is that basically if an officer has reasonable suspicion there could be cannabis – which in most cases is the smell – a blood test will be administered.”

Thurley says we need to ensure we’re building proper education systems across the country – as this issue is a national one.

“The legislation coming in to rule over impaired driving is federal – but of course, it’ll be up to the provinces to enforce this. So we’re dealing with all levels of government, and it remains a fact that not all levels of government know all of the pieces. What I’m starting to see which frankly worries me – is a reliance on law enforcement for education purposes, with municipalities. Questions like the one asked in Kelowna – the police officer couldn’t answer it, but it’s because he’s not necessarily the most educated person regarding the various ways cannabis works in the body.”

When asked if there is a safe level of cannabis that someone could consume before getting behind the wheel – Thurley says there’s a lot of variables.

“As for me, I’ve actually more or less taken myself off the road. I made the personal decision because I require significant levels of cannabis throughout the day for my various ailments. For medical users – we’ve seen suggestions that there should be different rules for driving, as it’s almost certainly going to be the case that there will always be enough residual THC levels in their systems to trigger a fail on tests. So we’ll need to figure out a way to reasonably allow people to drive – there’s 260,000 medical cannabis patients currently registered in Canada. We can’t kick them all off the roads for good, when they’ve been driving without incident this entire time.”

Thurley says it’s important to note that while the legislation feels like it’s behind on the science – we haven’t actually had the opportunity to do much science for the past few decades because of prohibition.

“It’s only been in the past 5 or so years that research has been able to be done properly on it. The federal government only announced $10-million for research – when they’re also announcing nearly $275-million for law enforcement. So there’s a real lack of research funding – and the reason research is behind has nothing to do with the fact that we CAN’T figure it out, we just haven’t gotten there.”

Thurley is urging law enforcement and government officials to recognize that there are situations when cannabis is present, but no impairment exists.

“In fact, that happens pretty frequently. So law enforcement needs to be ready to respond with the appropriate levels of compassion and kindness, if you will, to be able to determine whether or not that person is truly impaired.”