Consuming cannabis can significantly impair your ability to drive safely. In fact, cannabis consumption can double a driver’s risk of being involved in a motor vehicle crash. Impaired driving is also illegal; it’s a criminal offence in Canada that comes with serious consequences, including possible jail time.
Here’s what you need to know to stay safe.
The effects of cannabis on driving skills
Cannabis consumption affects critical driving skills by causing drowsiness and slowing reaction time. It also impairs a driver’s ability to watch and respond to multiple things at once. Studies have found that drivers impaired by cannabis have difficulty staying inside their designated lane, maintaining a steady speed and avoiding obstacles.
Cannabis affects each person differently. Depending on the individual, as well as the method of consumption and the potency of the cannabis, the effects can last up to 24 hours.
The laws on impaired driving
Under federal law, a first offence of drug-impaired driving comes with a minimum $1,000 fine, a suspended licence for one to three years, and a possible jail sentence of up to two years. A second offence means a mandatory minimum of 30 days in jail, followed by a suspended licence for at least two years. The law applies to all motor vehicles (including motorcycles, boats, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles), as well as driving that takes place on public and private property.
Penalties increase with subsequent infractions. For third and subsequent offences, the minimum jail time is 120 days followed by a three-year licence suspension. If a driver causes injury or death, imprisonment is longer and can include a life sentence.
Provincial and territorial authorities also have their own legislation for impaired driving. They can impose immediate short-term licence suspensions, longer-term suspensions and bigger fines, and make offenders attend education or rehabilitation programs.
In most provinces and territories, there is zero tolerance for driving under the influence of cannabis for drivers aged 21 and under, novice drivers (those with a G1, G2, M1 or M2 licence) and commercial drivers.
What defines “impaired”?
The effects of cannabis vary from person to person, depending on factors such as age, sex, consumption method and product potency. The law, however, is very clear on what constitutes impaired driving:
- THC levels between 2 and 5 nanograms (ng) per 1 mL of blood are considered impaired.
- THC levels of 5 ng or more per 1 mL of blood carry heavier fines and sentencing.
- Combined alcohol and THC levels are considered impaired at 50 mg or more of alcohol per 100 mL of blood, plus 2.5 ng or more of THC per 1 mL of blood.
If a policer officer suspects cannabis impairment while someone is operating a motor vehicle (or if they suspect someone of being impaired while operating a motor vehicle within the preceding three hours), they can demand oral fluid samples (saliva) tested roadside with Approved Drug Screening Equipment (ADSE), which screens for THC. Even if the fluid sample comes back negative, officers can still demand that you perform a Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) — for example, an eye examination, standing on one leg and/or a walk-and-turn test. Refusing these tests will result in criminal charges that carry the same (or greater) penalties as driving while impaired.
If a driver fails roadside tests and is arrested, officers can then demand a blood sample (taken by a trained medical technician) and/or a 12-step Drug Recognition Expert Evaluation (DRE).
What if cannabis is in the car?
Every province and territory has its own laws for vehicle transport. In Ontario, the law states that cannabis in the car must be:
- inside original packaging and unopened, or
- packaged and firmly sealed, or not otherwise readily accessible to the driver or passengers
Failure to keep cannabis contained and stored safely could result in charges.
Tips for staying safe
There is no way to know exactly when it’s safe to drive after consuming cannabis. Unlike alcohol, there’s no scientific evidence to suggest a cannabis consumption limit safe for driving or a how long a driver should wait to drive, and the method of consumption adds even more uncertainty. Some experts conclude that inhalation can impair your driving skills for six to eight hours, while ingesting cannabis can impair you for up to 12. It’s important to remember that everyone metabolizes cannabinoids differently, and even if a person feels sober, some effects of cannabis, such as drowsiness, can last 24 hours.
To stay safe and within the limits of law, always err on the side of caution and have a plan to get home safely:
- Stay overnight.
- Call for a taxi or rideshare.
- Use public transit.
- Call a close friend or family member.
- Have a designated driver.
Knowing — and adhering to — the laws of your province or territory can help you stay safe after consuming cannabis.