In just a few short months, the government of Canada will move to legalize marijuana nationwide. What does this mean in terms of impaired driving and its potential impact on our roads?

SOS Safety Magazine had a chance to speak with the Director General of Communications at Public Safety Canada, Jamie Tomlinson, to learn more about its Don’t Drive High campaign.

How did the campaign come about?

The reality is that driving under the influence of drugs is a major contributor to fatal road crashes in Canada, and young people continue to be the largest group of drivers who die in crashes and test positive for drugs. So this is a societal phenomenon that needs to be addressed now, not after cannabis becomes legalized.

In 2016, there were over 3,000 of police-reported drug-impaired driving incidents. And that was an increase of 11 percent from the previous year. There is a compelling case that we need to address this, and that’s what lead us to launch the campaign.

Who is your target audience for this campaign?

Our research told us, in terms of users, that a younger audience – those 16 to 24 – would be a key target group. What we learned, is that in this age group we find a large proportion of recent users are just on the cusp of becoming the most prevalent users. Our approach is very much focused on reaching that 16 to 24 age group.

Public Safety Canada did a lot of research heading into the launch of the campaign. What did you learn from your public surveys?

81% of respondents know someone who has used cannabis, and more than 56% had consumed cannabis themselves. Of those reporting cannabis use, 28% said that they have operated a vehicle under the influence of cannabis, and 1 in 3 reported that they had ridden in a vehicle operated by a driver who was under the effects of cannabis.

What we’ve learned is that young people don’t necessarily perceive their driving abilities as being adversely affected by cannabis use. We also learned that many young people believe that it’s difficult for police to detect and charge drivers while impaired.

What do you hope to accomplish with the Don’t Drive High campaign?

Ultimately, we want to reduce the number of Canadians who believe that driving under the influence is acceptable.

We need to do for drugs and cannabis what we’ve done for as a society for drinking and driving. Socially it’s unacceptable, and we need to move our society, our community, our citizens into that same mindset – that being impaired by cannabis and other drugs is not socially acceptable. And it’s also socially unacceptable to get into a vehicle driven by somebody who is under the influence. 

What has the feedback been from people since the launch of the campaign?

We spoke with a mother whose stepson was a victim of a drug-impaired accident and she said, “It’s not an accident – these are fatal crashes – an accident implies something happened without being predicted.”

When somebody makes a decision to consume alcohol or drugs or cannabis, and then makes the decision to get behind the wheel, or makes a decision to be a passenger of someone you know to be impaired – those are conscious decisions and that’s what we need to change.

How do you suggest parents approach this subject with their teens?

Talking with teenagers, to begin with, can be difficult, and certainly talking with teens about drugs and alcohol is even harder.

We know that parents play a fundamental role in teaching teens to drive responsibly, so that means teaching them not to drive impaired by drugs or alcohol, and to convey the message that there is no safe limit for young drivers.

One drink, a small amount of drugs – even those smalls amounts can affect them – those are the things that parents can convey.

What are some resources parents can use to talk to their teens?

This has got to be a collective effort if we’re going to see a societal paradigm shift. We’re working with partner agencies like Drugs Free Canada, which has a Cannabis Talk Kit, MADD Canada, and of course people can use the resources on our own website.