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 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. All posts by Sonia Straface