Survey shows increase of drivers in Ontario consuming cannabis edibles

| Staff

A newly released survey from the Canadian Automobile Association South Central Ontario shows about one-quarter of drivers in the province say they had recently consumed an edible prior to operating a motor vehicle.

The survey showed that 26% of respondents in Ontario admitted to consuming an edible prior to driving, an increase from a similar survey in 2019 that showed 16% being comfortable with the admission. 

The organization says in a press release that with approximately 10 million Ontario drivers, 26% equals about 156,000 Ontario drivers who have driven high on edibles in the last three months.

“It’s shocking that we’re seeing this many people who are getting behind the wheel while high,” says Michael Stewart, community relations consultant at CAA SCO. “Our data shows an alarming trend in the use of edibles and driving. With the growing popularity of cookies, gummies, and chocolates since legalization, the use of edibles continues to rise, and so do people who drive high on edibles.”

Stewart warns that edibles pose a greater risk to road safety because they are harder to detect and can take hours for the effects to kick in. The concern, he says, is that people may get behind the wheel sober, only for the effects of an edible to kick in mid-drive. 

The survey also found that in the past three months, approximately 600,000 Ontario drivers have admitted to driving after consuming cannabis in some form. Although the CAA SCO says this is still an alarming trend, it notes this doesn’t represent an increase from their 2019 survey. 

The most recent information from Statistics Canada, released in 2021, only covers up to 2019 so it’s still too early to measure long-term trends following legalization accurately. The federal agency did take steps to capture detailed information on cannabis-impaired driving in the lead-up to legalization in order to create a pre-legalization baseline. 

These figures also show an increase in the detection of cannabis-impaired drivers even prior to legalization, potentially showing a broader societal trend. Rates of drug-impaired driving in Canada have been increasing since 2008, when the federal agency started distinguishing between impaired driving as a result of alcohol or drug impairment.

The legalization of cannabis in late 2018 also provided police with broad new screening and enforcement powers in relation to impaired driving to screen for alcohol and drugs, which Statistics Canada also notes may have contributed to the rise in the rate of police-reported impaired driving in 2019.

Despite this significant increase in drug-impaired driving, the report also references data from the National Cannabis Survey showing that cannabis-impaired driving does not appear to have increased following legalization. In that study, covering the first three quarters of 2019, 13.2% of cannabis users with a driver’s licence reported driving within two hours of use at least once in the three months preceding the survey. This is slightly lower than what was observed in the pre-legalization period covering the first three quarters of 2018 (14.2%).

The same survey also shows that the proportion of Canadians who said they had been a passenger in a vehicle driven by a person who had used cannabis fell from 5.3% in the pre-legalization period to 4.2% post-legalization. Similar findings were also found in the Quebec Cannabis Survey (Institut de la statistique du Québec 2020).

The discrepancy, argues the report, is that police-reported drug-impaired driving data includes impairment by any type of drug, not only cannabis.

As an example of increased enforcement, 604 drug recognition experts (DREs) were trained in the 2018/2019 fiscal year, bringing the total number to over one thousand. In that same period, more than 8,000 police officers completed training or upgrading on the standardized field sobriety test (also known as the “physical coordination test”). 

This increase in testing, says the Statistics Canada report, could mean that officers are merely uncovering those with THC in their system who had previously gone undetected, rather than simply from an increase in consumption due to legalization. This would be consistent with similar figures from Statistics Canada showing only modest increases in overall consumption of cannabis following legalization.

Early figures from some US jurisdictions that have also legalized cannabis show conflicting figures when it comes to any potential increase in impaired driving following legalization. A 2017 study of Colorado and Washington found that motor vehicle fatality rates did not differ significantly in the first three years of legalization. 

In 2019, an analysis of 3,005 non-fatally injured drivers at a B.C. area trauma center found no evidence of crash risks increasing with THC

Despite more legal access to cannabis, impaired driving cases not on the rise in Canada or US

CAA SCO reminds Canadians that those who fail a DRE evaluation face an immediate 90-day licence suspension, a seven-day vehicle impoundment, and a $550 fine. 

If convicted in court, drivers will see their licence suspended for at least a year, along with various other mandatory stipulations, including an education or treatment program, and the use of an ignition interlock device for at least a year.