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All about medical marijuana

The drug nearly half a million Canadians are expected to be legally using by 2024


According to a recent Health Canada projection, there are approximately 40,000 medical marijuana users in the country; a number that is expected to rise in the coming years as the move to legalizing recreational weed is still being debated.

There aren’t any official numbers on how many of the 40,000 are professional drivers, but do you know many puffs of a joint or marijuana pills you can take before an officer can charge you with impaired driving?

You’d be surprised to know that there really isn’t a legal limit to how much dope you can smoke before you put your vehicle in drive because there isn’t an accurate enough way to measure how much someone has ingested. There is no weed Breathalyzer or blood-to-cannabis concentration limit in Canada to determine someone’s insobriety like there is for alcohol. There is also no way to determine when or how long ago cannabis was ingested since the substance can stay in one’s system for days or even weeks.

And for some, where medical marijuana is used for pain relief and the drug is constantly in the bloodstream because of regular use, this grey area between medical marijuana and driving expands even further since their marijuana, in the eyes of the Canadian government is technically completely legal.

This blurs the lines when a medical marijuana user is pulled over (case after case in Canada are being thrown out because of the fact that there is no established insobriety limit) or is denied an employment opportunity when they fail a pre-employment drug test for say, a truck driving job.

Canada was the first country to adopt a system for regulating the use of medical marijuana when it introduced the Marihuana Medical Access Program in 2001 when at the time, there were less than 100 people authorized to possess medical marijuana. After the first year, that number climbed to close to 500. And now, Health Canada is estimating that by 2024 there will be 450,000 medical marijuana users in the country.

However, to possess medical marijuana legally in Canada is no easy feat. You are required to apply for permission and can only be approved by a licensed medical doctor who finds your symptoms and conditions fall within Health Canada’s rigid categories. The first category claims that you can apply if your doctor deems you have “any symptom within the context of compassionate end-of-life care” or if you suffer from severe pain or muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury or disease, severe arthritis or if you have seizures caused by epilepsy. In addition, the first category allows for people suffering from AIDS/HIV and/or cancer who suffer extreme nausea, weight loss, anorexia or pain. If you don’t fall into this category, you must fall under category two, which outlines a medical condition wherein traditional treatments failed to relieve extreme symptoms, in order to apply.

Medical marijuana can be ingested many different ways depending on the preference of the user. Smoking a joint is the most common ingestion of the drug because it is a fast way for a patient to feel the positive effects. Medical marijuana can also be taken in pill form or it can be eaten so the health risks associated with smoking (such as shortness of breath or higher risk of developing lung cancer) are avoided.

Contrary to popular belief, medical marijuana and street marijuana are not the same thing. The major difference between the two is where the drug comes from. Buying marijuana legally in Canada from a manufacturer ensures that the quality of marijuana is consistent and controlled by Health Canada because the production of the drug in this environment is standardized.

As well, when buying marijuana illegally on the street, there is a greater risk with what you could get.

“It’s just a matter of ensuring there’s a quality product and that you’re not getting (marijuana that has been) cut with other things or (marijuana) that has been grown in a dirty environment,” said Jamie Shaw, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD), on why medical marijuana is safer than marijuana bought on the street.

As well, the people using medical marijuana and those buying marijuana illegally for recreational use are ingesting the drug for different reasons. Medical marijuana users aren’t necessarily looking for a high – they are seeking pain relief, or are trying to curb side-effects like nausea or loss of appetite because of pre-existing conditions or diseases such as cancer or AIDS/HIV. Recreational users are more often than not using the drug to receive a high from the drug’s psychoactive effects. 

Craig Jones, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Canada explained that there are two cannabinoids that are particularly important in medical marijuana that affect the user – THC and CBD.

THC is the psychoactive component that is most often associated with the feeling of “getting high” from the cannabis plant. CBD, on the other hand, is the cannabinoid in marijuana that alleviates pain for the user. Jones says that it’s possible to vary the potency of one cannabinoid over another depending on the strain ingested or preferred by the user.

“For example, there are strains of cannabis which feature 75% CBD and you can’t get high off it,” he said. “However it is also evident for some people – and this is where it gets tricky – that they don’t get the full benefit of pain relief without a little bit of the effect of THC.”

The fact that there are a countless number of strains of cannabis that can all be used for different effects only adds to the confusion of what technically constitutes as driving while under the influence of marijuana, in Canada anyway.

Though Jones’ organization describes itself as being anti-prohibition (which is not to be confused with being pro-cannabis) he claims it’s not true to say that regular users of medical marijuana are actually driving high.

“Cannabis does impair motor performance particularly in higher-level doses,” he said. “But people who use cannabis medicinally become skilled at titrating their dosage to their systems. So it’s not entirely accurate to say that medical users are driving while high because they in some cases need very, very little of their particular strain in order to alleviate the pain.”

Shaw agreed with Jones, saying: “While so much of (driving while impaired by using cannabis) has to do with what you’re using, why you’re using it and how you’re using it, if you’re somebody who smokes a joint for the first time at a party, then you’re probably not in a good shape to drive.  But if you’re somebody who’s using it at night to go to sleep, it’s only going to have beneficial effects.”

Even so, the safety concerns of marijuana are what fleet executives worry about when deciding to hire someone who is a user of medical marijuana. Marijuana is known to impair one’s short-term memory and can alter one’s decision-making and their mood. Most concerning to trucking companies is that marijuana reduces one’s motor co-ordination and slows down reaction time for users; the National Institute on Drug Abuse claims a recent analysis of several studies found marijuana use more than doubles a driver’s chance of being in an accident.

However, pot may not be the only option for you if you are in pain. Many doctors will recommend prescription drugs such as Percocet, oxycodone or Tylenol 3 for severe pain before suggesting medical marijuana. Unlike marijuana, which has a bad rap because of the stereotypical image of the pothead or stoner, these drugs can be just as – if not more – dangerous if taken before driving.

Tylenol 3 (commonly called T3) is a narcotic that contains codeine and is often given to those suffering from pain caused by a multitude of reasons. Even though T3s are easy to obtain and ingest, they are known to cause drowsiness, dizziness and even blurred vision.

This begs the question of what is safer – a driver suffering from chronic pain taking medical marijuana after work hours and well before a driving shift, or a one who pops a T3 before heading out on the road to help relieve their pain?

Though Canada’s laws around pot and driving are still being developed, it’s still not a good idea to cross the border if you’re a user of medical marijuana. In the United States, marijuana is still categorized as a Class 1 narcotic and the DOT does not allow for its use medicinally.

When it comes to employment drug tests in Canada, Jones said it is important to note that for regular users of marijuana (recreational or not) the drug will never leave the bloodstream. This may make it difficult for drivers, HR reps or fleet executives to understand why someone who is a medical marijuana user could fail a pre-employment drug test even though it may have been weeks or months since they’ve last ingested cannabis. Jones says that at the end of the day, cannabis affects everybody differently, which is the cause for all the confusion around driving laws and marijuana.

“It’s a case-by-case situation because everyone metabolizes cannabis differently,” said Jones. “For example, when you metabolize cannabis through the liver – which is when you take it orally – that produces one form of pain relief but that effect is going to be different from person to person. But, it’s going to take a long time to figure out what the precise dosage (balance between THC and CBD) is to that achieve maximum safety while getting optimal pain relief.”

So, what’s next for those Canadian medical marijuana users who work in the trucking industry?

Unfortunately, it’s pretty much a waiting game until the government and insurance companies sort things out. 


Sonia Straface

Sonia Straface

Sonia Straface is the associate editor of Truck News and Truck West magazines. She graduated from Ryerson University's journalism program in 2013 and enjoys writing about health and wellness and HR issues surrounding the transportation industry. Follow her on Twitter: @SoniaStraface.
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8 Comments » for All about medical marijuana
  1. CB says:

    Ms. Straface,

    great article, however, the issue I have is about “Street” vs. “Commercial” Cannabis.

    “Street” would indicate an illicit market & no interest or concern for the plant or end-user and focus of profit.

    The “commercial” plant is almost the same in that it is strictly for profit, however, it too has seemingly NO interest in the end-user’s best interest due to the mandatory process of ‘irradiating’ the dried plant material prior to packaging. This is a fundamental no-no.

    Furthermore, the idiocy & careless concept of trying to further restrict any ‘production’ of derivatives from the dried plant materials. These derivatives are the basis of superior benefits of this plant.

    At the end of the day, these two options you mentioned are wholly omitting the one paramount option your readers should be fundamentally aware of, and that is the FACT that today, every Canadian Citizen has the protection & allowance of the Canadian Charter to unhindered, unabashed access to our own food & medicine, and are guaranteed complete self-reliance for such.

    This means OUR OWN PLANTS to grow – and there is NO better person who to trust than one’s self, when it comes to your own body.

    Please make an amendment to your story & make it CLEAR that this fundamental aspect of Cannabis is again being attacked, and that the status quo of illegal Cannabis prohibition must come to an abrupt stop over night, and that Cannabis must be declared a ‘foodstuff’ over the same night, and last but not least, it is removed from the intended wrongful classification as a narcotic, and is thus immediately shifted to a mandatory Daily Dietary preventative food supplement!

    All these fantastic opportunistic profit seekers better recalculate their windfall and take into account the FREE factor and fast.

    Hope you can raise this rather critical fact prior to any decisions coming soon.

    Thanks in advance,

    Carl.

  2. Chris says:

    Right now I myself am going through this. Dealing with major back issues and sick and tired of stressing out for drug tests. I have since gotten the federal approval for my medicinal marijuana. Now my union is unsure what to do. Just cause I medicate in the evenings for relief and getting a good nights rest it is always going to be in my system. I have disclosed this to my employer yet which will be their excuse if I ever have an incedent where a test is required and this will be their ticket to fire you. I carry an excellent letter from the doctor stating it is in my system and am not medicated during the day. I want the union to make a decision and back me cause it’s no different than t3s except for te fact it stays in you. If there is any changes in what can be done would love to know I have had a clean record of hoisting never an incedent and plan to keep it that way. Crane operator. What ever company tries to fire me for a fail will end up in court and re unions lawyers are goin to be busy.

  3. stacey says:

    So its not illegal to smoke n drive if you have a prescription? And what about smoking while you drive?

  4. Ed says:

    i have a medical marijuana card, my supplier is mettrum, if i smoke a joint then hrs later go for a ride can the police charge me for being impaired of a substance

  5. Future Bus Driver says:

    How does this effect Bus Drivers/Truck Drivers to date? What if you get past the initial drug test, get hired and then they do a random drug test and find it in your system but find out you have a license? Or have Oxycocet’s in your system but have a prescription? What if I medicate at home after work and at night? I can take Oxycocet’s for pain relief is that more accepted? I can’t find any clear data on the rules. Due to disabilities being a part time bus driver would probably be a great idea. Obviously not using Marijuana before jumping in the bus with children. Do people as of now in current day use tylenol3/4 or oxycocet’s and drive bus/truck? How does this effect them? Or are you simply discharged with zero tolerance?

    • Snowflake says:

      My doctor told me I do not have to disclose my use and that when used for medical purposes, it’s looked at as any other legal medication when it comes to driving. You can be charged if you are found to be using oxy, Percocet, T3 and cause an accident! So before driving after taking it she suggested playing with dosing when I’m off work to see how it affects me. Same as any other drug. So if pulled over and give a test, we can argue the medical and daily use aspect as it’s always going to be in our systems even if we didn’t light one up then go drive! Just as any other med, it affects everyone different and that goes for whether you can drive or not. I don’t get high off the one strain, so I take that in the am and the THC one after work. I’d still show positive even though I’m not high. Our work even stated in our drug use contract that medication that can impart judgement must be tried when off work to see effects before driving. And that we will not use within 8hrs before driving. Doctor said work would have to go through a lot of red tape before being able to fire you. Even offering a non driving position first!

  6. I HAVE BEEN ON MEDICAL POT FOR THE PAST OVER 4 YEARS. NEVER A PROBLEM. I BUY MY MEDICAL POT AT A LICENSED PRODUCERS STORE. THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO BE LICENSED TO SELL MEDICAL POT. I GOT INTO AN ADDICENT ABOUT 4 MONTHS AGO AND WHEN I WENT TO THE ER THEY TOOK MY BLOOD WORKS AND FOUND TRACES OF POT IN MY SYSTEM. I WASNT WORRIED THOUGH BECAUSE I WAS LEGAL TO SMOKE IT
    I WAS RELEASED FROM THE HOSPITAL WHEN THE ER DOCTOR TOOK AWAY ALL MY IMPORTANT MEDICATION I WAS ON AND IN 9 DAYS RECEIVED A LETTER IN THE MAIL SAYING MY LICENSE WAS SUSPENDED AND I HAD MENTAL ISSUES. SO FOR 4 MONTHS I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO HAVE MY DOCTOR WRITE A LETTER TO THE MTO SAYING HE SIGNED A LEGAL DOCUMENT 3 YEARS AGO MAKING IT LEGAL AND NOW HE DENIES IT. SO MTO WONT GIVE IT TO ME UNLESS HE WRITES THAT LETTER. EVEN MY FAMILY DOCTOR NOW WONT AGREE ANYMORE THAT ITS LEGAL. THE LICENSED PRODUCTER IS WRITING A LETTER TO MY LAWYER TELLING THEM I AM LEGAL TO CARRY AND BE REASONABLE WHEN SMOKING. I TAKE MAYBE ONE OR TWO JOINTS TO SMOKE JUST BEFORE BED FOR MY PAIN AND IT HELPS ME SLEEP. I HAVE HAD BACK SURGERY, 6 MONTHS AGO I FELL IN MY HOUSE AND BROKE MY JAW AND IT WAS OPERATED ON AND A MONTH LATER FELL ON THE SAME SIDE AS MY CORRECTED SURGERY AND NOW ITS BROKEN AGAIN AND THEY WONT RE OPERATE. SO I AM IN LOTS OF PAIN. THERE WASNT ENOUGH IN MY SYSTEM TO MAKE ANY CHARGES. SO STILL FIGHTING THIS AND GETTING NO WHERE.

  7. Angelo D says:

    The profits of legal weed don’t reside simply in its medical uses. As Kathleen Wynne gleamed once that its availability would be a perfect fit for the LCBO. The dollar signs are already stamped on the recreational and casual use of marijuanna alongside our spend thrift Federallies. With these intentions, one has to wonder what’s in the finalized legal incarnation?
    Like alcohol or any other stimulants, there is a shelf life to the impairment that cannot be measured to any credible accuracy. Reality guidelines that a glass of wine at dinner time should be ok is far from a hard and fast rule and falls short of a mathematical hypothesis which should include variables such as weight, time, blood pressure, amount of food… Etc. The list is endless and would look something like Einsteins black board.
    Science can create more questions than truths as we attempt to find a way to say anything as absolute. Unfortunately, there are some long term statistics that give us a clear picture of what the future will look like. A person is not drunk hours after a glass of wine much like a person is not high hours after using marijuana – if there is to be legal recreational use?
    Long term affects of alcohol are not a mystery nor are the long term affects of marijuanna use as Ms. Straface so aptly stated in her article.
    Do we need “Short term memory” Faust- pas in safety sensitive occupations and doesn’t just about everything we do involve an element of safety?
    If a person is not impaired from recreation legal use hours later, what segment of society or occupation will not be permitted to partake due to the machinery they are in control of or will there be a “Not withstanding” for the vast majority of us drive. Friday night deliveries are going to look remarkably different in the extremely slow moving zoned, out drivers who have been given a freepass to something, I believe to be so falsely calculated.
    If I forget a mallet on the back of my tanker or Johnson bar on my flatbed because my short term memory went up in smoke, there is no grace period or second chance in the form of knuckle noogy or finger wag. Law enforcement expects adherence that looks like perfection even if the concepts in law are full of “Grey areas.”
    The first use for marijuanna is its real medical use with real evidence for real suffering. The second rides on the coat tales of the same medicinal use by holistic avenues. I see it as nothing more than to justify a placebo affect that sparks our mental abilities – or disabilities.
    The third category is straight up recreational use so it becomes very apparent what 2/3’s of its intended market is for. I know we like to use the word “Medical” in these discussions about legalizing marijuanna, but it can cover up what the future truly holds. Less criminal records in possession, but more criminal records in impaired driving if the resources are there to enforce the new “Pot Laws?” Rest assured, the resources will be there.
    Safety, by design is an everywhere factor and if we are assured by long term studies of the failings of short term memories by users of marijuanna, then we already where ithis is going.

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