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Driving While High: What Are the Laws in Canada?

With cannabis legalization, many Canadians are wondering about the legal boundaries of weed consumption. You might be wondering, “Can I drive while high?”. Read on to learn about the legal limits of cannabis and how to enjoy it without getting into trouble with the law.

At the stroke of midnight on October 17th, 2018, marijuana became legal across Canada under the Cannabis Act. Many Canadians take pride in the legalization of cannabis. It is a historical event that created waves across the globe and signalled a new perception of the drug.

Despite pot being legalized for over a year, many Canadians are still wondering about the boundaries and related legality of weed consumption. A common query many Canadians have is, “What are the DUI laws on driving while high?”

Impaired driving is the primary criminal cause of bodily harm or death in Canada. 40% of Canadian drivers killed in vehicle crashes tested positive for drugs. This figure exceeds the percentage of drivers that tested positive for alcohol (33%). Unfortunately, these statistics indicate that the legalization of cannabis has caused more cannabis-related road accidents.

At Canada Drives, we believe in having fun responsibly. In this post, we answer some common questions about the legal limits of cannabis, and how driving while high is viewed in the eyes of the law.

What is a DUI?

Let’s start with the basics. DUI stands for driving under the influence. “Influence” refers to being intoxicated as a result of the consumption of drugs, alcohol, or any other substance that alters your behaviour and responses.

Since cannabis is now legal, Canadians have begun to question the influence or impact of cannabis on driving. To answer that question, let’s explore the science and legality of this issue.

Is it safe to drive while high?

Cannabis has two active ingredients that affect the human body. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the component that causes the intoxicating effects. CBD, or cannabidiol, is the second major component in cannabis. CBD is reported to offer therapeutic and healing effects. It does not cause people to get high.

Consumption of weed causes people to feel euphoric, relaxed, and experience heightened sensory capabilities. While under the influence of cannabis, individuals can also experience negative effects such as confusion, sleepiness, forgetfulness, paranoia, and lack of concentration.

How does cannabis impair your driving abilities?

Cannabis impairs your driving by altering your motor skills, slowing your reaction time, and inhibiting your short-term memory and concentration. Drivers under the influence of cannabis tend to drive at varying speeds and are unable to make quick decisions or respond to unexpected events. As you can imagine, these tendencies make it unsafe to drive while high on cannabis.

Driving while high on other drugs is unsafe too. This includes all illegal substances, such as cocaine, LSD, ketamine, or methamphetamines. Even prescribed or over-the-counter drugs can impact your ability to drive – some come with warnings right on the label.

Is driving while high dangerous?

Because you’re under the influence of a substance that alters, heightens, or depresses your perception of reality, it is considered dangerous to drive while high. It doesn’t matter if it’s cannabis, meth, painkillers, or any other drug. Getting behind the wheel while under the influence of drugs isn’t safe and can result in an accident.

What’s the difference between driving while high vs. drunk?

Both alcohol and weed consumption can lead to lapses in your decision-making and spatial awareness. Both can inhibit your reaction speed and alertness on the road. But how you react to an intoxicating substance will vary depending on the drug or drink as well as the person. Factors include a person's body weight and their ability to metabolize the substance.

For instance, a 250lb. person will typically need more of a substance to get them intoxicated or high. However, it could take much longer for the effects of the drug to dissipate because there’s more in their system, plus their metabolic rate may be slower.

Is driving while high worse than drunk?

As it’s different from person to person, it’s impossible to say to what degree driving while high is better or worse than driving drunk. However, both circumstances have stiff penalties and deadly consequences.

It's worth noting that a study from 2012 revealed that being high on cannabis doubled the risk of a serious or fatal collision.

How long should you wait before driving after consumption?

It’s difficult to determine exactly how long a person should wait to drive after consuming cannabis. Unlike alcohol, cannabis consumption is difficult to measure since it can be consumed in different ways. In addition, the potency of weed and each person’s ability to dissipate the drug must be considered. For now, the length of time an individual must wait before driving is case by case.

Some experts advise waiting a minimum of four hours before driving after consuming cannabis. It's important to emphasize that four hours is an absolute minimum and may not be long enough in many situations. If you consumed a lot of cannabis, you should wait longer before driving. If you mixed cannabis with alcohol or other drugs, you should wait longer. If you’re a new user, you should wait longer since you may be unfamiliar with the effects of cannabis. Lastly, if you don’t feel sober or are unsure if you’re able to drive, don’t take the risk!

Is it illegal to drive while high?

Operating a vehicle while high on cannabis is a criminal offence. Driving laws have been in place for a long time, but the federal government updated these laws recently. In June 2018, Bill C-46 was passed. This bill added federal laws and penalties to the Criminal Code of Canada surrounding driving while impaired. Provinces and territories have introduced new, varying laws related to cannabis and driving to complement the federal laws.

The federal laws under Bill C-46 for DUI charges are as follows:

  • Between 2 and 5 nanograms of THC per ml of blood within two hours of driving results in a $1,000 fine as a summary conviction criminal offence.
  • Over 5 nanograms of THC per ml of blood within two hours of driving could be a summary or indictable offence, and the punishment ranges from a $1,000 fine to a maximum of 10 years in jail for repeat offenders.
  • Both alcohol and THC in your system would be a hybrid offence, indictable or summary, and would also be punishable by a $1,000 fine to a maximum of 10 years in jail for repeat offenders.

It’s worth considering that a conviction for a DUI due to THC in your blood could result in the same consequences as being convicted of driving drunk. That often means exclusions from entering other countries like the United States.

How does the marijuana DUI test work?

With legalization, new methods of drug detection are being tested and approved. Since Bill C-46 sets out the limits of THC you can legally have in your blood while driving, the Draeger DrugTest 5000 lets officers test a driver’s saliva for THC at the roadside. This device is being used by police in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, PEI, Alberta, and Nova Scotia. Other devices are in development for roadside testing as well. 

But generally, if police officers have reasonable suspicion that a driver is under the influence, they can demand that the driver complete a standardized field sobriety test. The police may then bring in a drug recognition expert (DRE) or a blood sample for testing.

It is important to note that if you fail a test for driving while high, the first test cannot be used as evidence in a criminal trial and cannot be used to lay a charge. Only the second test has this power. If you tested positive for cannabis or other drugs on the second test, you are subject to the Bill C-46 federal laws mentioned above.

Police testing on drivers for alcohol consumption is very similar to cannabis consumption. A road test is always performed first but cannot be used as evidence or to lay a charge. If the driver fails the first test, they can demand a second test which can be used as evidence and to lay a charge.

But what about medical marijuana? The same rules apply to medical cannabis. Of course, you can use medicinal marijuana to treat your condition or illness, but there are no allowances or permissions for driving. You should not drive during or immediately after the use of cannabis.

What about edibles?

Consuming cannabis edibles often doesn’t trigger an immediate high like smoking cannabis products do. You may be tempted to get behind the wheel after eating a cannabis brownie or cookie, but that’s not a good idea. Often, edibles are slow-release and can take two hours before the high is felt. 

Whether it’s through smoking or eating cannabis, the same laws and rules apply.

Can you drive on CBD?

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is another component of cannabis. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t give you a high. Its main uses are to impart a feeling of calm or relaxation. CBD is exploding in popularity for people looking for a natural treatment for anxiety, although its properties are still being explored and tested. 

If you’re tested for driving while high after consuming CBD products, don’t worry. The test is for the presence of THC and quality products and oils shouldn’t trigger a positive test result. 

Driving while high statistics: accidents & deaths

  • According to a MADD Canada, there were as many as 974 accident deaths in 2014 involving individuals who tested positive for drugs alone, or drugs and alcohol. Bear in mind, this statistic relates only to fatal accidents, not the thousands that caused property damage and/or injury.
  • One in seven cannabis users admit to driving within two hours of consuming cannabis in the past three months. 
  • Higher than 5% of drivers tested positive for cannabis in a roadside survey in Manitoba – more than double those who tested positive for alcohol. 

The statistics are sobering. MADD Canada reports that 618 deaths from auto accidents in Canada in 2014 involved drivers who tested positive for drugs alone. Cannabis is present in nearly half of drug-positive fatal crashes. Another 356 deaths were attributed to crashes where the driver tested positive for both drugs and alcohol, a deadly combination.

You may think that driving while high accidents are a big city problem alone. That’s not the case. In Nova Scotia alone, five to ten drug-impaired driving arrests were made per month in 2020.

Marijuana driving laws by province and territory

As mentioned, each province and territory has created and implemented laws to complement federal DUI cannabis laws. Each province and territory has adopted its own method of enforcing the Bill C-46 federal laws. This means that—depending on the province or territory you live in—you can expect different procedures and guidelines.

Provinces and territories have updated their laws to prepare for the legalization of cannabis. The new laws include specific measures to address penalties for impaired driving. In most provinces and territories, these new laws indicate the following:

  • Novice drivers and commercial drivers must have zero blood-drug contents.
  • Licences can be suspended on the roadside for drug-screening test failures.
  • Offenders of drug-impaired laws must attend mandatory educational programs.

If you have additional queries about your province or territory laws related to drug-impaired driving, visit the provincial or territorial government website for detailed information.

Avoiding impaired driving

When it comes to impaired driving, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You will enjoy your night out so much more if you don’t have to stress about whether you’re okay to drive or not. Don’t let a good night end in a police station or hospital. Below is a list of things you can do to avoid drug-impaired driving.

Please note: Some of these options are not advisable in the current COVID-19 climate.

  • Use a designated driver
  • Take public transit
  • Call an Uber, Lyft or taxi
  • Stay at a friend’s house
  • Book an Airbnb or hotel so you have somewhere to crash
  • Call a friend or family member to pick you up

Today, you can enjoy weed legally and freely in public. This is an exciting time for many Canadians across the nation. But always remember to use weed, alcohol, and other substances responsibly, and never mix consumption with driving.

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