Proposed Drug-Driving Law Premature

This archived article is from June 2007. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

The federal government is under pressure to do something about the perceived increase in drug-impaired driving. However, the Canada Safety Council says its proposed criminal legislation is premature. On June 5, the Council presented its recommendations on a bill that aims to counter drug-impaired driving.

“The chances are very high that this legislation would be challenged,” says Canada Safety Council president Jack Smith. “That is why we have asked that it be put on hold until the groundwork is in place to meet the rigorous requirements of a criminal court.”

Criminal legislation must be air-tight. Unlike provincial traffic regulations, the accused is innocent unless proven guilty. A very high level of proof is required, because the consequences are extremely serious. Beyond the immediate penalties, anyone convicted of a criminal offence will carry that record for life. Try to get a job or a passport these days with a criminal record.

The Canada Safety Council points out that no defensible impairment levels are in place for drugs. In fact, all the specific drugs haven’t even been identified. A variety of legal and illegal substances can be considered “drugs.” These include cannabis and other illicit substances, as well as prescription and over-the-counter medications. 

Some drugs can be detected in the body long after their effect has worn off. For example, THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) can be detected in the body for up to four weeks, although its impairing effects do not last.

Once criminal impairment levels have been established for all potentially impairing drugs, tools must be approved to measure levels for all of them, after which police must be trained to use those tools. This could take years, because the evidence must meet the rigorous demands of a criminal court.

Proponents of Bill C-32 say a driver impaired by cannabis poses as much of a risk as a driver who is above the legal limit with alcohol. However, the Bill is not restricted to cannabis. On top of that, there is no scientific basis to establish impairment by cannabis. As well, studies consistently show alcohol poses a much higher risk than cannabis.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, there is little evidence that drivers who have used cannabis on its own are more likely to cause crashes than drug-free drivers. It does negatively impact driving ability, although in very different ways from alcohol. Relatively few road fatalities test positive for THC alone. Most often, it is found with alcohol, a combination that dramatically increases crash risk.  

Medications are also covered in Bill C-32. Currently, about 22,000 human drugs are available in Canada . To identify those which can impair driving (alone or in combination with other substances), then set defensible criteria for each and approve measurement tools, poses a gargantuan challenge.

Medication can have a positive or negative effect on driving ability. Some people, such as epileptics, may not be able to drive at all without medication. Benzodiazepines, often prescribed for anxiety and insomnia among seniors, have been implicated in collisions, but even over-the-counter drugs such as antihistamines and sleeping pills can reduce driving ability. Combinations of medications can also produce unexpected side effects and bad reactions. Drinking alcohol while taking medications is very risky.

According to the Canada Safety Council, immediate precautionary measures are in order – but the priority must be to protect the public from drug-impaired drivers, rather than simply impose criminal sanctions after the fact.

The Council has encouraged provincial and territorial governments to impose administrative licence suspensions on drivers who show impairment by substances other than alcohol. It also recommends the government develop and fund national strategies to reduce the use of cannabis, and to address concerns associated with impairment by medication.