Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on October 15, 2018. 

October 17 is just around the corner. Cannabis will be legal (and the province expects a hit from the first orders, predicted to come as a huge wave as many want to make history by ordering as soon as cannabis becomes legal,) and many others are bracing for what the legalization brings about.

One of the concerns is driving while under the influence.

There are multiple studies that arrived at the same conclusion: a certain concentration of the active substance, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC,) is associated with driving impairment, more so, one study said, in occasional drivers. Some of the effects of cannabis use include lethargy and cognitive dysfunctions, and delayed reactions. Not a great picture as far as driving is concerned.

When combined with alcohol, the effects are increased and that means an increased risk for drivers and all other people on the road, drivers and pedestrians alike. A 2009 review in the American Journal on Addictions points out that while a certain level of alcohol or pot would not cause severe impairment when used separately, driving under their combined influence greatly increases the risk, given that each of the mind-altering substance comes with its own impairing effects.

Let’s agree that we are all different and one person’s tolerance is not another’s. It’s true. It is also true that there are responsible drivers who will choose to stay put after smoking pot or drinking alcohol, or both, and there will be others who will take to the road regardless (there are some who have been doing so already.)

How will that be regulated, and how soon?

We already have many issues with an increased number of accidents on our roads. The stats are sobering: 350,000 crashes last year (that is 960 crashes a day!) compared to 330,000 in 2016. This is not just impaired driving but all of them: speed, impaired driving due to alcohol or drug consumption, tiredness and not least, cell phone use.

The numbers climb every year, and 75 percent of them are due, drivers themselves admit, to bad driving habits. Throw more impaired driving into the mix and things are looking a lot grimmer. More stats from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD): half of the 2,297 fatally-injured drivers tested positive for alcohol and/or drugs.

Another concern is the impact of cannabis consumption on young minds. I have been told more times than I can remember that smoking pot is a ‘rite of passage’ and everyone will be alright. Unfortunately, I am not willing to agree.

Many teenagers smoke pot regularly (one may wonder about the funds needed to maintain the habit) and while some may be more affected than others due to unique genetic makeup if you will, one thing is for sure: young brains are developing brains and any mind-altering substance affects them.

The younger the age at which they start at, the poorer the outcome.

The most recent Canadian study on the effects of pot on developing brains followed almost 4,000 teenagers and the conclusions were sobering: the effects of pot consumption are long-lasting, more so than those of alcohol.

Memory, cognitive skills, and ability to control behavior – they were all affected when teenagers consumed pot. This comes at a time when our kids are having a lot of trouble with focus in general as attention deficit is on the rise, and so are various behavioural issues which affect their learning. Should we still write it off as a ‘rite of passage’?

While pot is the most common illicit drug used by teenagers in North America, there are many hard drugs that are being used by children and teenagers: PCP, MDMA, cocaine, LSD. None of them should get near a developing brain, but they do.

There are people out there offering them to our youth – at a price of course, which often pushes kids to see it as a way to make money and get their fix at the same time. A vicious circle that transforms young people into prey; in more ways than one.

That alone warrants a note: one of the good things about pot legalization is (hopefully,) a significant reduction in the illicit pot commerce, including among high school students (which is worryingly flourishing at the moment.)

Also, another pro argument is that businesses selling pot legally can be taxed and the money used for good things. There are big questions still to be answered regarding pot edibles too and their effects on health, toxicity concerns and such.

Bottom line: it’s complicated. Decriminalizing a drug has its advantages, but the devil is in the details. And there are many in this case. There are many peer-reviewed articles outlining the advantages of using cannabis for various conditions such as anxiety and mood disorders, chronic pain, and palliative care.

There are many approved drugs that can open the door to opioid addiction, so if a controlled natural product containing active ingredients can be used instead, then let’s do it. Also, if adults choose to use cannabis recreationally, they are now free to do it without having to look over their shoulder.

But let’s try our hardest to provide thorough education about the effects of cannabis on developing brains and awareness about cannabis-induced impairment while driving; it is morally responsible to do so.