The Vancouver Sun recently published an op-ed piece, written by Dr. Patrick McGeer. He is an emeritus professor at the UBC School of Medicine and continues to conduct research in the field of neurology. Sounds like a smart guy. In his op-ed, he claims that cannabis legalization is harmful to Canadians. And he is wrong.
Not only has Dr. McGeer overlooked the numerous social benefits that will flow from legalization, but his article stinks of reefer madness. And it’s simply not supported by any scientific research. As a professional researcher and professor, I would expect more from the good doctor. But it appears that he is more interested in fear-mongering and scare tactics than publishing a reasoned and supported opinion.
So let’s break it down.
Dr. McGeer claims that his direct exposure to cannabis is limited. Well, that shows. He claims that of the 100 scientists he has supervised, the only two he had to dismiss were cannabis smokers who were unable to plan and execute their experiments. But he does not indicate whether it was the effect of having smoked marijuana that led to their dismissal, or just happenstance that the two people whom he dismissed were also marijuana smokers.
Nor does Dr. McGeer indicate how many of the other 98 scientists were marijuana users. I suspect he wouldn’t know, given his attitude toward it. His staff are probably afraid to speak openly about their use of the substance.
Aside from his anecdotal evidence about marijuana’s cognitive effects, Dr. McGeer makes a bold and unsubstantiated claim. He claims that the unanimous conclusion that marijuana has a deleterious effect on thinking.
The conclusion is anything but unanimous. There are plenty of studies showing how marijuana can have a positive impact on cognition. There are medical fields looking into the use of marijuana to improve cognition for those who have other conditions that can lead to cognitive impairment, like anxiety or ADHD or eating disorders or chronic pain.
What Dr. McGeer claims about cognition in his article is also completely unsubstantiated by any scientific research whatsoever. There are no studies referenced. There are no links to articles or information to support these bald claims. There is no support for what is clearly an opinion cast as scientific fact.
His conclusions about impairment are also inaccurate. Studies have failed to reach consensus about marijuana impairment and driving. The impairing effects of cannabis do not last days; smoked marijuana generally wears off after two to three hours, while marijuana that has been ingested in edible form typically lasts five to six hours.
What Dr. McGeer is likely referring to here is the storage and release of THC in the body, which can last days or even weeks. However, the THC stored in and released by fat cells has not been scientifically determined to be linked to impairment. The presence of THC in the body does not equal impairment.
As as driving lawyer, I was particularly surprised by Dr. McGeer’s claim that marijuana is the drug most frequently found in the cars of fatal accidents. I suppose this may be true if a comparison were done of all drugs found in vehicles. But the presence of a drug in a vehicle does not equate to the presence of a drug in the body, use of the drug, or impaired driving by that drug. And I wonder whether Dr. McGeer is including alcohol in that statistic.
Which statistic, I note, is unsubstantiated. Like the rest of his nonsensical claims about cannabis in the article.
I would have expected better from a highly regarded emeritus professor, at a top-notch university. And I would have expected better of the Vancouver Sun than to publish an article that essentially amounts to reefer madness.
Dr. McGeer suggests that Canadians just say no to cannabis after legalization. Canadians would be better off to just say no to nonsense like this.
The Federal Government has been pushing their overhaul of Canada's impaired driving laws by reference to the big-bad-boogeyman of marijuana-impaired driving. But does the effective legalization of marijuana in Canada actually mean that we are all now in peril?
Of course not.
Canada has had marijuana and drug impaired driving laws throughout this whole process. And what is being proposed under Bill C-46 does not differ in too many respects from the current state of the law. Indeed, it appears that the biggest concern for the Federal Government is about THC concentrations in the blood. Everything else is basically a fine-tuning of measures already in place.
So in celebration of the Senate vote, I propose to outline just what those laws are.
Roadside Testing for Drugs
Yes, we already have a system in place that allows for roadside testing of drivers suspected to have drugs in their body. This is known as the Standardized Field Sobriety Test. The test, which is set out in Section 253 of the Criminal Code, is meant to be used where an officer has a suspicion that a driver has a drug in their body, but does not have grounds to make an arrest.
Essentially, the test boils down to a few divided-attention tasks that a person would never perform while driving. First, following a pen-like objects with the eyes. This is known as a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test. Second, standing on one leg for about thirty seconds. Or, creatively, the one-leg-stand. And finally, the walk-and-turn test. This one is perhaps the most complex, requiring the driver to take nine heel-to-toe steps down an imaginary line, do a special turn, and take the same nine heel-to-toe steps back.
One wonders how high you have to be to see an imaginary line.
But in all seriousness, these tests serve the same purpose for which the Federal government wishes to introduce saliva testing. And while critics of the tests, including myself, have pointed to the absence of any peer-reviewed scientific research that supports the validity of these tests for drugs, the legislation is written in such a way that an officer can use them despite the absence of scientific support.
The results of those tests then allow a police officer to make a demand for further evaluation to be conducted by a Drug Recognition Evaluator, and potentially, to demand a blood or urine sample.
Drug Recognition Evaluation
If a peace officer has grounds to arrest a person for impaired driving by drugs, or the person has failed the SFST test, the next step is to demand a Drug Recognition Evaluation. This is a multi-step procedure designed to discern whether a person is impaired, whether the impairment is as a result of a drug or a medical condition, and, if it is a drug, what category or class of drugs is causing the impairment. Effectively, it turns police officers into doctors.
The steps used in Canada are defined in the Evaluation of Impaired Operation (Drugs and Alcohol) Regulations. They include the following:
Canada uses a modified version of the Drug Recognition Evaluation as it is taught and approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association. The modification is significant. It is the elimination of the "interrogation" portion of the test. Drug Recognition Evaluators in the United States will tell you that this aspect of the test is very valuable in making a determination about impairment.
The reason for the modification is significant. It is because in Canada it is an offence to refuse to participate in the test, while in the United States it is generally not. However, a person cannot be compelled to provide a statement and so removal of the interrogation step was necessary to make the DRE steps Charter-compliant.
None of this is changed by the laws set out in the impaired driving bill. Moreover, as a result of recent Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence, the conclusion of the DRE officer is considered to be an expert opinion in court.
At the end of the evaluation, if the police believe the driver is impaired by a drug, a sample of blood or urine can be required. This will then be tested to corroborate the opinion of the evaluator. Again, nothing about Bill C-46 changes this. Instead, the only change is that there is a presumption of impairment if the drug test result is the same as the DRE opinion.
And so it does not appear that any significant modifications to our impaired driving laws were or are necessary in light of legalization. Rather, in the coming weeks as Canadians enjoy recreational marijuana I expect that we will see society functioning just fine without these changes. Our legal system is and has long been prepared to deal with this. Now that Bill C-45 has been passed by the Senate, it should not even be necessary to amend any driving legislation.