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Driving high: Canada prepares to experiment

Driving high: Canada prepares to experiment

Is it safe to get high on marijuana on then get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle?

To put it another way: should “toking and driving” be treated the same as “drinking and driving”?

Canada may be preparing to find out as it is making moves to legalize recreational marijuana use by 2017 – though such a move would place our cheery northern neighbor in violation of more than a few international drug laws.

Yet if ganja use is given the green light (so to speak) by the Canucks, how might that impact highway safety in the Great White North

Well a new survey by insurance giant State Farm aimed to find out … and came up with some surprising answers based on a poll of 3,000 Canadians of driving age.

Here are some of the thoughts uncovered by this survey:

  • More than 60% of respondents believe the legal system is unprepared to deal with people who drive under the influence of marijuana.
  • Close to the same number think there will be an increase in impaired driving if and when marijuana becomes legal.
  • Yet while most of those polled agreed that drinking and driving is dangerous, just one out of four said they don't believe or don't know that smoking marijuana and driving can be as bad.
  • Still, 80% of those Canadians polled believe that marijuana impaired drivers should face legal ramifications for driving while high.

“We know marijuana impairs judgment and reaction time, so any move to legalize it has to be matched with safeguards to discourage drivers from getting behind the wheel while they are influenced by it,” noted John Bordignon, head of media relations at State Farm, in a statement. “Keeping our roads and streets safe must be a clear priority."

So here’s a question: How prevalent is marijuana impaired driving on Canadian streets right now?

Well, according to State Farm’s survey, nine out of 10 of those polled say they have never driven under the influence of marijuana.

However, some admitted to “driving high” and believe it is harmless. Indeed, 44% said it didn't impact their ability to drive safely, though an additional 14% are unsure.

Additionally, nine out of 10 respondents feel that younger drivers, aged 16 to 34, are the most likely to drive under the influence of marijuana.

Canada’s Traffic Injury Research Foundation did some number crunching on the ganja topic, looking at fatally injured drivers whose blood tested positive for marijuana in 2012. Here’s what they found:

  • Some 28.5% were aged 16 to 34
  • 21.1% were aged 35 to 49
  • 10.6% were aged 50 to 64
  • Just 1.3% were aged 65 and over

When asked what would make them stop driving high, 20% of respondents to State Farm’s poll said that “there is nothing that would make them stop driving while under the influence,” while four out of 10 think that stiffer penalties would deter them followed by more public awareness.

That said, State Farm’s poll found that more than 50% don't think that Canada’s police have the tools and resources necessary to identify marijuana impaired drivers.

State Farm also reported what it dubbed a “surprising finding” in its survey when it comes to drug use and driving: some 25% of respondents admitted they ignore prescription or over-the-counter drug labels that recommend not driving while on the medication all or some of the time.

Still, nine out of 10 respondents indicated that they do not drive while on a prescription or an over-the-counter drug and – similar to the findings regarding marijuana use and driving – some 61% of Canadians think prescription drug-impaired driving is more of a problem for younger drivers aged 16 to 34.

We’ll have to wait and see what the safety impact on the highways of our northern neighbor will be if Canada does indeed legalize marijuana at some point next year.

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