This Wednesday, October 17, cannabis consumption for non-medicinal purposes will be legalized in Canada. It’s a big change for society in general, but what are the specific implications for motorcyclists?
It is illegal to ride while impaired
While many riders completely avoid mixing alcohol and motorcycles, others will drink a small amount of alcohol and ride. They think as long as they limit their drinking, their blood alcohol content keeps below the 0.08 per cent legal limit, so as long as they aren’t impaired, they’re good to go.
However, this approach does not work with marijuana — if you’re high, you’re impaired, and if you’re even minimally impaired by cannabis, it is illegal to ride. The federal government’s cannabis information websites state the same message wherever you look: “Drug-impaired driving is dangerous and against the law.” Don’t consume a small amount of cannabis and assume you’re okay to ride.
Federal regulations on cannabis use set a limit of 5 nanograms of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) per ml of blood as being equivalent to the 0.08 per cent blood alcohol limit; exceed that limit while operating a motor vehicle, and you can be slapped with the same Criminal Code impaired driving charge. But there’s also a new offence under the Criminal Code that targets motorists who mix cannabis and alcohol, with 0.05 per cent blood alcohol or higher combined with 2.5 nanograms/ml or more THC in their blood.
There’s also a new fine for driving with a blood content between 2 nanogram/ml and 5 nanogram/ml.
Police were able to conduct field tests with breathalyzer devices to determine if a motorist was under the influence of alcohol, and now the federal government has approved a similar device for marijuana usage testing, the Dräger DrugTest 5000. However, some police officers have reservations over the usage of this device, and researchers have said it provides both false positives and false negatives at a fairly significant rate.
Along with Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, the other tool police officers can use to determine if a blood sample is warranted is a Drug Recognition Expert. These officers receive extra training to observe physical signs of drug impairment, and to determine the cause. Police departments across Canada have been sending officers off for this training ahead of impending marijuana legalization.
It is dangerous to ride while impaired
This should be obvious, yet there are still cannabis users who feel they’re safe riders, maybe even safer riders, when they’re riding while high.
Rebecca Jesseman, Director of Policy for the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, says people may feel this way because they’re compensating for cannabis impairment by driving more slowly or conservatively. However, their drug use is still inhibiting their driving, even if they don’t realize it: “Cannabis also impairs perception – so people may think that they are driving more safely when in fact they are just less attentive to the risks or errors they are making.
“Cannabis impairs your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. That includes impaired reaction time, ability to concentrate, tracking, memory, and ability to divide attention between tasks. When driving, that translates to increased variability in lane position, following distance, and speed.”
In other words, the skills that keep you alive while you’re motorcycling are all impaired when you’re under the influence of cannabis.
It’s also important to remember the effects of cannabis can vary depending on manner of consumption: smoking gets you high more quickly than edibles do. And even if you don’t feel like you’re high, you may still be impaired psychologically or physically.
Dr. Andrea Furlan, a Staff Physician and Senior Scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, says, “In the case of medical marijuana, we usually tell our patients to wait six hours after they use inhaled forms and 12 hours after edible forms, because they need to be digested before they reach the brain.” And Jesseman gives some of the best advice of all: “As with anything else when riding a motorcycle, best to err on the side of caution and give yourself extra time.”
Not all cannabis products and users are equal
This is something many users know already, but inexperienced users may be unaware. Different cannabis products, whether they be different breeds of marijuana or different cannabis-infused edibles, can contain different levels of psychoactive THC, just as wine, beer and vodka all have different alcohol contents. Some cannabis products will have very different effects than others.
It’s not well understood why THC affects users differently, but that’s also a known fact, just the same as alcohol affects users in different ways.
The takeaway here is to avoid assuming you’ll be safe to ride in a certain amount of time after consuming a cannabis product, based on experiences with a different product. Just because the effects of a joint wore off in seven hours does not mean that will be true of a joint made from a different marijuana plant, or that you’ll experience the same effects with an edible product.
The roads may be more dangerous
Collisions with cars are one of the greatest dangers to motorcyclists. Inattentive cagers are bad enough, but impaired drivers are even more unpredictable and lethal. So are vulnerable road users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists in more danger? Dr. Furlan thinks so.
“If there are more drivers on the roads who are using cannabis and are impaired, then the answer is yes,” she says. “Everyone needs to be cautious about drug-impaired drivers, more specifically at times of the day when people will use a mix of drugs such as cannabis and alcohol. This usually happens on evenings and nights. The mix of cannabis and alcohol is very dangerous.”
The question is, will legalization of cannabis actually increase the amount of impaired drivers? A 2016 study by EKOS Research Associates found 28 per cent of Canadian marijuana users said they’d operated a vehicle while under the influence of cannabis. More recently, an Ipsos study found that 1.9 million Ontario residents admitted to driving under the influence of cannabis, with 735,000 admitting to doing so in the past 12 months.
If that percentage of cannabis users who drive under the influence stays the same, and the total number of cannabis users grows, then it logically follows there will be more impaired drivers.
Recreational marijuana use has already been legalized, decriminalized, or otherwise de-restricted in several US states, and there have been studies into the effects on traffic. Some research shows a slight increase in traffic accidents that researchers attribute to cannabis usage, other research does not.
Police officers in American jurisdictions with legalized recreational marijuana usage do not necessarily see a dramatic rise in impaired driving since decriminalization. In Maine, a state that recently voted for recreational marijuana usage, things haven’t changed much, at least not yet. Sergeant Wade Betters, an officer with the Bangor Police Department, says officers in his city may have seen a slight increase in impaired driving in recent months since legalization, but certainly not an onslaught. As he points out, many of the recreational marijuana users were already using cannabis before it was legalized, and the number of users may not have actually changed that much.
However, an article from the Denver Post in August, 2017, says US federal highway safety data points to an increase from 627 highway fatalities in Colorado in 2013 to 880 in 2016, during the first few years of cannabis legalization in that state. That’s a significant 40 per cent increase. Breaking those numbers down further, there was a 17 per cent increase in alcohol-related crashes over that time. Marijuana-related crashes, though, rose 145 per cent.
Again, there are detractors who say the testing procedures don’t account for traces of cannabis in a user’s system weeks after consumption. Maybe, but the state’s law enforcement officials often don’t perform marijuana testing on individuals who are already legally impaired by alcohol, so many of these crashes are potentially the result of a marijuana-alcohol mix. This is, in Dr. Furlan’s words, “very dangerous.”
According to the Denver Post, authorities in the state of Washington are seeing a similar trend in traffic fatalities since legalizing marijuana use.
Regardless of the data from the US, Canada’s traffic patrol officers — the men and women who have to clean up the mess after an impaired driving collision — are apprehensive. While they say they’ll enforce the law, whether they like it or not, many Canadian police will tell you privately that they’re concerned they will see an increase in impaired driving. That’s bad news for motorcyclists.
The Canadian federal government, meanwhile, is busy working to study the effects of cannabis on motorists and devising strategies to reduce the number of impaired drivers, after legalization.
Riders need to be vigilant, even off the bike
Along with the increased possibility of danger on the roads, riders also need to be wary of accidental cannabis ingestion. It sounds silly, but it’s a possibility.
While it seems unlikely that a motorcyclist could smoke marijuana and be unaware of the effects, you can be affected by second-hand smoke. It is also theoretically possible to consume marijuana edibles unwittingly. Consider this recent case of a child sent to hospital in BC after ingesting cannabis-infused gummy bear candy, or this story from Nova Scotia. Health-care officials have been warning about this for some time in Canada. Cannabis in edible form can have a delayed reaction time, meaning a rider could unwittingly consume it at a party, then come under its influence later on the ride home. If you consume alcohol, you’ll likely know right away. That’s not the case with some forms of cannabis, so be aware of what you’re consuming.
Although many motorists and motorcyclists have been consuming cannabis for years, it’s going to be an all-new experience for other law-abiding Canadians who are starting to experiment. In either case, the takeaway is the same: a lessening in government regulation now means a potential increase in danger, either to the motorcyclist who can now openly consume cannabis and may ride under the influence, or the rider who shares the roadway with other motorists who may be under the influence. Beware.