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driving concerns

Apparently, British Columbia is considering allowing cannabis cafés and cannabis use in other places, such as music festivals. One of the reasons they show on their website is – alongside potentially boosting the sales of legal, taxed cannabis – that it could potentially [decrease the risk of] drug-impaired driving. This doesn’t make sense to me. How could consuming cannabis in public prevent people from driving impaired? People have to get there somehow, don’t they? Can staff really be expected to identify someone who’s too high to drive? – Kim, Kelowna, B.C.

If British Columbia decides to allow cannabis cafés, could they weed out people who consume cannabis and drive?

The answer is hazy, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada.

“It’s possible [cannabis cafés] could lead to more impaired driving, but the opposite possibility also exists,” said Eric Dumschat, MADD Canada’s legal director. “People at music festivals smoke weed and they’ve been doing it for 50 years – but now we would have staff who are trained to stop them [from driving if impaired].”

From April 6 to May 9, B.C. asked the public through an online survey whether the province should allow public spaces where people can consume nonmedicinal cannabis – and, if so, how these spaces might be regulated.

The poll is now closed and the results will be posted in the fall, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said in an e-mail statement.

In a discussion paper accompanying the survey, the province said it is considering various possibilities, including consumption spaces inside retail stores, “cannabis gardens” at music festivals and country fairs, cannabis lounges, and restaurants that would serve both alcohol and cannabis.

Potentially, the spaces would sell cannabis and have staff trained to recognize if customers are showing signs of marijuana impairment and keep them from driving, the paper said.

There’s no timeline specifying when the province might make a decision on whether to go ahead with the spaces, the ministry said.

Right now, no provinces offer legal public consumption spaces, the ministry said.

The province has also consulted various groups, including public health and safety organizations, cannabis industry associations, tourism and hospitality groups, local governments and Indigenous organizations.

Don’t serve with alcohol?

The province consulted MADD Canada, Dumschat said.

“Our recommendation is that whoever will be doing this, whether it was a restaurant or a music festival or whatever, would have to choose between alcohol and cannabis, and couldn’t serve both,” Dumschat said. “We know that combining alcohol and cannabis is significantly more impairing than just one or the other.”

Whether or not B.C. introduces public cannabis spaces, MADD also wants to see the province bring administrative penalties for drug impairment in line with penalties for alcohol. (Administrative penalties are imposed by every province but Quebec and they are separate from federal impaired driving charges.)

Right now, if your blood alcohol level is above .05 per cent in B.C., you face a three-day driver’s licence suspension on the spot and, at the officer’s discretion, your vehicle could be impounded for three days. That increases to seven days on the second offence and 30 days on the third.

But drug-impaired driving brings just a 24-hour licence suspension and, at the officer’s discretion, a 24-hour vehicle seizure, Dumschat said.

“It needs to be the same for cannabis,” Dumschat said. “It’s less in most provinces. None of the provinces are doing this well – it’s just varying degrees of poor.”

Extra tax dollars?

So, why consider public spaces for cannabis use at all?

One reason is to potentially boost sales of legal cannabis. According to the discussion paper, in 2020, Statistics Canada reported that, out of about $936-million spent on nonmedicinal cannabis in B.C., about 55 per cent came from illicit sources – who don’t face the same regulatory standards as licensed cannabis producers or collect sales taxes on behalf of governments.

“Cannabis is an important agricultural crop in British Columbia and a significant economic driver in some rural regions – cannabis businesses have said allowing consumption spaces could help build a robust and sustainable legal cannabis economy,” the ministry’s statement said. “However, some public health and safety stakeholders have raised concerns that consumption spaces may increase overall cannabis use and lead to increased risks of impaired driving, smoking or co-use with liquor.”

Robyn Robertson, chief executive officer of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), which was not consulted but is submitting its opinion to the province, worries that public consumption spaces could lead to more impaired driving.

“There’s already public transportation and we still end up with impaired driving,” Robertson said. “And how is a hostess or server supposed to know when someone is impaired with cannabis? That’s difficult even for a trained DRE [drug recognition expert].”

How much cannabis can you consume and still be able to drive safely? There’s still not a clear answer, MADD Canada’s Dumschat said.

THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), a molecule in cannabis that causes intoxication, is different than alcohol, which generally affects most people similarly for a specific amount of time, he said.

“[With THC] it’s a lot more complicated,” Dumschat said.

Generally, you shouldn’t drive for at least four to six hours after consuming any amount of cannabis – but the best advice is to just avoid driving entirely, Dumschat said.

Bars on board?

Servers are already used to spotting drivers impaired by alcohol and sometimes drugs, said a B.C. liquor industry group.

“We know what to watch for,” said Jeff Guignard, executive director of the B.C. Alliance of Beverage Licensees (ABLE BC), a group representing liquor sellers such as pubs, bars and private liquor stores. “If you’re visibly intoxicated, it doesn’t matter if it’s prescription drugs or cannabis or alcohol, we’ll cut you off and put you in a taxi or Uber.”

Because cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2018, it’s “hard to make the argument that it shouldn’t be treated in a similar way to alcohol,” MADD Canada’s Dumschat said.

“Both are legal and both are somewhat restricted,” Dumschat said. “So we’ve got to figure out the best way to ensure that consumption spaces are done as safely as possible.”

Several American states, including Colorado and Alaska, have laws allowing cannabis lounges and cafés – but the businesses are still too new to know what effect they’ve had on impaired driving, said a U.S. spokeswoman for MADD.

“Colorado has public consumption permits, but the first cannabis lounge just opened, so we don’t know its impact,” Becky Iannotta, MADD director of communications, said in an e-mail. “On-premises cannabis consumption permit holders are required to share information with customers about impaired driving. Permit holders are prohibited from having both a cannabis permit and an alcohol permit, so no dual consumption is allowed on site.”

In Canada, it’s still not clear whether legalization has led to an increase in impaired driving deaths, Dumschat said.

“The fatality data is five years out of date,” he said. “[But] about 10 per cent of impaired driving charges are drug-related.”

University of British Columbia research looking at injured drivers admitted to trauma centres between 2013 and 2020 found the proportion of drivers with THC levels above the Canadian legal driving limit of two nanograms per millilitre more than doubled after legalization – from 3.8 per cent to 8.6 per cent.

Because many Canadians are consuming cannabis anyway, whether at home or in the alley behind the pub, could educational posters and vigilant staff in cannabis cafés and lounges dissuade some cannabis users from getting behind the wheel?

“Potentially, yes,” Dumschat said. “Will it be large or meaningful? I doubt it, but having more people looking out for impaired drivers isn’t a bad thing. At least somebody is monitoring what you’re doing.”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.