In Canada, we are hearing about pending legislation to legalize, for recreational use, the drug marijuana. In the US, while marijuana remains prohibited under federal law, 23 states have eased access for medical use and four states plus Washington, DC. now allow recreational use.
Canadians recently elected a federal government committed in campaign promises, a mandate letter to the new Minister of Justice, and its first speech from the throne to creating “a federal-provincial-territorial process that will lead to the legalization and regulation of marijuana.”
The director of an organization called the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition apparently with some connection to Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addictions reportedly called this move to legalization “long overdue”. The assumption relied upon for this point of view is that the use of this drug is epidemic and legalization will create an opportunity for healthful regulations not available or effective when the use of the substance is fully illegal. This suggestion attempts to invoke science but is really just a matter of opinion.
Proponents of the legalization of the drug cite two positive expectations. The first is more and better research about the effect of marijuana use on physical and mental health, human cognitive development, motivation, and productivity. We should also come to better understand its medicinal properties if any.
The second expected positive result is the measurable benefit from the de-stressing on law enforcement, the court system, and the corrections system. (Note: rescinding any criminal law will have this immediate effect.)
This being said, road safety concerns cry out for immediate focus on the big gaping hole in regulatory control, namely, what level of blood THC concentration—the psychoactive component in marijuana—renders a driver legally impaired. According to the (US) National Institute on Drug Abuse we know:
Marijuana is the illicit drug most frequently found in drivers involved in crashes, including fatal ones.
(2 (2) The risk of being involved in a crash roughly doubles after marijuana use.
(3 (3) Crash-involved drivers with THC in their blood, particularly higher levels, are three to seven times more likely to be responsible for the crash than drivers who have not used drugs or alcohol.
(4 (4) The risk associated with marijuana combined with alcohol appears to be greater than that for either by itself.
(5 (5) Marijuana significantly impairs judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time, and studies have found a direct relationship between blood THC concentration and impaired driving ability.
Hound Labs, an Oakland, California company working with scientists from UC Berkeley, Vancouver-based Cannabix Technologies Inc., Colorado-based Lifeloc Technologies Inc., and a chemistry professor–PhD student duo at Washington State University are working at developing ‘an instant roadside marijuana breathalyzer’. But what will be the national measure of amount linked to impairment? Despite this ‘unknown’, however, where marijuana has been legalized, certainty about driving impairment effect has prompted the states of Washington and Montana to set—at this point—an arbitrary limit of five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood (ng/ mL) and Pennsylvania a one ng/mL limit.
Write this down: Marijuana use is going to cause motor vehicle accidents the way alcohol used to cause motor vehicle accidents.