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New legal limits for impairment may have a bigger impact than legalization.

Now that legal cannabis has an official start date – October 17 – I guess there are two big questions all of us are asking: Will we see a big increase in cannabis use? And, second, will we see an increase in cannabis related workplace issues? I suspect that the answer is No in both cases, and I’ll tell you why.

It’s the effect of legalization on attitudes toward drug testing that I think will have the biggest impact. The courts and tribunals, both labour and human rights, have always been extremely reluctant to allow random testing for cannabis.

That may be about to start changing, and it’s the emerging laws against driving while impaired by cannabis that will open the door to changing legal and social attitudes toward testing.

Just to be clear, driving while impaired – due to cannabis or alcohol or anything else – is currently, and has long been a criminal offense.

But new federal legislation passed at the same time as cannabis legalization now sets some very specific “legal limits” for cannabis and driving – much like the legal limits for blood alcohol that we’re all familiar with. These are objective, measurable limits, and they are now part of the Criminal Code.

The way it currently works is that many police officers are specially trained to do roadside assessments for drug impairment – much like the sobriety tests we all see on TV. The police can also demand a blood test, but the technology and available facilities make this hard to do routinely.

That’s changing. With legislated legal limits comes new technology – things like quick, roadside saliva tests that can establish probable cause for a blood test. This will make testing routine in cases where an officer suspects a driver may be under the influence of cannabis. We may even see random testing at RIDE spot checks in the future. And that, in turn, will start to send the message that driving – or doing any other safety sensitive task – while impaired by cannabis is, well, a crime and not a human rights issue.

That may be a stretch, I admit. But I do believe we will see attitudes start to change when people begin to see impairment for what it is. (It is also interesting to see how organizations such as MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving – are starting to address the issue.)

The legislation that just passed concerns levels of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, and sets limits that can be objectively determined by blood and saliva testing.

  • Drivers who have more than two nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood, but less than five, will be guilty of “drugged driving,” and liable to a fine of up to $1000. That will not count as a criminal conviction, but will be more like a traffic offense.
  • Drivers with a level of five or above, however, will fall under the Criminal Code as “impaired driving” and result in a mandatory fine of $1000 for a first offense. Second offenses will result in 30 days in jail, and third offenses 120 days. (And, incidentally, anyone with a prior conviction for impaired driving involving alcohol would be looking at a second offense if convicted of impaired driving involving cannabis.)
  • There are also legal limits for alcohol and cannabis in combination. Drivers with .05 percent or higher alcohol concentration, as well as 2.5 nanograms of THC, will also be guilty of impaired driving.

So one perhaps unexpected result of legalization may well be a serious tightening-up of enforcement and a growing public awareness that cannabis impairment is a safety issue and that cannabis use has to be responsible.

Another thing I discovered in researching all this is that the experts do not expect an epidemic of cannabis impairment in the workplace. The experience in places where cannabis is legal (or where medical marijuana use is so widespread as to make it virtually legal) tends to bear this out.

Studies and reports I’ve been able to find all paint a pretty similar picture of what happens to levels of cannabis usage after it becomes legal (in places such as Colorado). Yes, there is an increase in usage, but not a huge one by any means. Many suggest that marijuana consumption even drops a little among teenagers – one report said it was becoming “uncool” once their parents could buy it legally.

It’s among adults 26 and over that the numbers are up – moderately.

Now, I don’t know how this will shake out in the long run, but it seems to me that the increase we’re talking about is from adults who wouldn’t buy cannabis when it was illegal, but start to use it – or use it again – once it’s legal; and that suggests that they tend to play by the rules and are more likely to be responsible in their cannabis use.

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