Some sober thoughts about pot

Legalization is coming – it's time we start to talk


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There are few basic social tenets on which nearly all people agree: murder is bad, literacy is good, that sort of thing.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/03/2017 (2270 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are few basic social tenets on which nearly all people agree: murder is bad, literacy is good, that sort of thing.

Here’s another one, though the strength of this conviction is, tragically, all too often honoured in the breach: impaired driving is a scourge, a clear public health danger and a selfish and violent act that kills or injuries too many Canadians.

But when we say “impaired driving,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Booze, right? What about pot?


At a minimum, most people can agree that it’s a terrible idea to drive while stoned out of one’s gourd. Yet every day, a notable minority of Manitobans are doing it. That’s what MPI discovered in an anonymous roadside safety survey.

The numbers, reported in Thursday’s Free Press, are striking. Of 1,203 drivers who agreed to give voluntary breath and saliva samples to MPI, about 10 per cent tested positive for drugs, including pot, cocaine and opioids.

Of those, marijuana was the most common. Fifty-three per cent of positive results included marijuana; cocaine was a distant second at 31 per cent, with opioids, benzodiazepines and amphetamines trailing along at lower rates.

It should be noted that not all of these positives suggested a level of impairment. Yet of those who did test positive for pot, 62 per cent had levels of THC in their system at least twice the legal limit in Colorado, where pot is legal.

Manitoba justice minister Heather Stefanson said she was troubled by the results; NDP justice critic Andrew Swan told the Free Press he was “surprised” that the rate was that high.

Frankly, he shouldn’t be surprised; the numbers more or less line up with other data we have about pot usage in Canada. What those numbers tell us, consistently, is that Canadians are well-acquainted with marijuana.

By now, it’s clear that if the goal of prohibition is to crush usage of pot, then prohibition has failed. A 2012 study found that a little more than one in 10 Canadians used pot within the last year; that includes a full third of people aged 18 to 24.

Seniors are less likely to have ever used marijuana, but more than half of Canadians between 15 and 44 have tried it at least once; moreover, a full 3.2 per cent of Canadians over 15 smoke at least once a week.

That’s more of us than go to the movie theatre every week, just for a quick comparison.

So it’s clear marijuana laws haven’t made us strangers to pot. What prohibition does do is complicate how we discuss its safe use; if pot is illegal, then education campaigns are inevitably caught up in alarmism and baggage.

After all, how can we calmly educate youth on how to responsibly use a substance that, at this stage, is still illegal?

With the Liberals pledging to move forward on legalization — a move that advocates are anxiously awaiting, over a year since the federal election — we ought to seize this opportunity to open a sane conversation on safe use.

If and when we enact legalization, public education campaigns can focus on the facts. We can take a sober (so to speak) look at how marijuana use impacts driving and develop messaging strategies targeted to those effects.

For instance, a large 2015 study, which recruited occasional pot smokers and put them through a driving simulator, found that at high enough levels of THC, drivers showed similar levels of lane-weaving as with .08 blood alcohol.

What was more striking was how the two substances acted together: after using both alcohol and marijuana, test subjects showed significant lane-weaving, even when their levels of both substances stood below legal limits.

Clearly, there’s still a lot of education that needs to happen around these effects. Anecdotally, many marijuana users I’ve spoken to report feeling that pot use doesn’t impact their driving; studies show otherwise, and that should be known.

That said, it will take more than that. Reducing impaired driving — regardless of substance — starts with education. But it also ties into other aspects of physical and social infrastructure, including cultural tolerance and transportation.

Japan, for instance, has a particularly exuberant drinking culture, but only 6.2 per cent of traffic fatalities there are linked to drunk driving — one of the lowest in the world by that measure. Canada, by contrast, clocks in the highest at 34 per cent.

Looking at those numbers, a good guess is that Japan’s superior public transit and pedestrian-friendly cities likely play a moderating role; in much of Japan, it’s very convenient to go out on the town and leave your car at home.

Yet so long as we’re talking about marijuana, the time for alarmism is over. We know it’s not as destructive as prohibition mantras held; it is not, as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently said, “only slightly less awful than heroin.”

With legalization hypothetically on the horizon, the time for public education is now. So let’s see a federal bill on this issue, let’s start discussing it frankly and factually — then let’s get on with things, more informed and more safely.

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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