Despite public awareness campaigns and law enforcement training to deter marijuana-impaired driving, a third of Canadians who've recently used cannabis say they've been behind the wheel after consuming, according to a new government survey.
The online survey, conducted in January 2022 by EKOS for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada and recently posted online, says 33 per cent of Canadians who report having used cannabis within the previous year say that they have driven under the influence.
The survey says that among Canadians who have used cannabis at some point in their lives, about 26 per cent say they have hit the road after consuming.
The survey analyzed 2,193 responses, randomly recruited mostly through a self-administered online questionnaire, with 10 per cent contacted by cell phone. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.09 per cent.
When asked to explain their behaviour, about 10 per cent of respondents said they didn't know better at the time or were uneducated about the risks. About 39 per cent said they didn't feel impaired and another 23 per cent said they thought they could drive safely.
Just under a third (30 per cent) of respondents said they had travelled in a vehicle when they knew the driver was high.
The federal government has been warning Canadians about the risks of driving while under the influence of cannabis since before most cannabis products were legalized in 2018 and cannabis edibles were legalized in 2019.
"There is no good excuse for driving while impaired, and being a passenger with an impaired driver is also risky," a government webpage on drug-impaired driving says.
To raise awareness of the dangers, Public Safety Canada developed a "Don't Drive High" campaign in 2017 which included paid advertising. The government has called the campaign a success, citing its reach on social networking sites like Facebook, on television and in other media.
Cannabis driving myths hard to dispel: MADD Canada
The country's leading anti-impaired driving advocacy group says it's a "myth" that cannabis use doesn't affect driving ability, or that it makes one a better driver.
"Unfortunately, there's this persistent myth that if you drive under the influence of cannabis, you're ... a better driver than when you're sober," Eric Dumschat, MADD Canada's legal director, told CBC News.
"And that's one of the things that I know we at MADD Canada especially are having some difficulty dislodging, is this myth that people think that they're safe drivers."
Though the survey results suggest the government's awareness campaign — in which MADD participated — has not deterred some drivers, Dumschat said governments had an obligation to discourage drug-impaired driving in the run-up to cannabis legalization.
In a statement issued to CBC News, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada pointed to survey results that suggest increased awareness of the effect of cannabis on drivers.
Eighty-six per cent of survey respondents — including those who don't use cannabis — agreed that the drug impairs driving ability. That figure is the same as it was in 2020 but is up from the 81 per cent recorded in 2017, when similar government-commissioned surveys were conducted.
"The results from the public opinion research referenced show an increasing number of respondents agreeing that cannabis use impairs driving abilities," the Public Safety statement reads. "This is further backed up by results from the Canadian Cannabis Survey."
Dumschat said efforts to raise awareness can only go so far and deterrence also has a role to play.
"So one of the things [governments] need to continue doing, and it's something I know that they are, is continuing to train police officers in the use of the standardized field sobriety tests," he said.
Police must employ "drug recognition evaluation and ... oral fluid screening technology," he added, "so that people really understand that if you are driving while under the influence of a drug, the police have the capability to detect you and catch you."
More than 27,000 police officers across the country had received Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) training by the end of 2020, according to government data. Police services are also purchasing more approved drug screening equipment; they bought 107 such devices in 2020, compared to 48 in 2018.
Police services also rely on RCMP-trained "Drug Recognition Experts" (DREs) to assess impairment — but the government says COVID-19 public health restrictions have led to difficulties in training new DREs. There were 1,135 active DREs in the country in 2021 compared to 1,279 in 2020, according to government figures.
The government survey reports that only two per cent of those who said they drove impaired did so because they thought they could evade law enforcement.
Drinking and driving is still more dangerous: MADD official
Dumschat said it's his view that while cannabis-impaired driving is dangerous, it's not as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol.
Eugene Oscapella, who teaches drug policy at the University of Ottawa, said he'd like to see the government focus less on cannabis and its effects on driving and more on other driving behaviours that can be harmful — such as driving after taking certain prescription drugs, or driving despite a lack of sleep.
"It's not a good idea to drive while you're impaired, but … we have to be careful to situate the issue, the severity of the problem, amongst other factors that can cause driving to be dangerous for other people," he said.
He said drivers using cannabis alone concern him much less than drivers consuming it in combination with alcohol or other drugs.
Oscapella said he's not sure the government has many good options to completely eliminate the problem.
"I don't know what the answer is. I don't know if there is an answer," he said.
"There's going to be a percentage of the population — no matter what the advertising campaigns, no matter what the penalties — who are going to drive in situations where they've gotten impaired by alcohol or a drug."