Many Canadians driving after consuming cannabis, according to new StatsCan data

A troubling new survey from Statistics Canada says that more than a million Canadians have reported being the passenger in a vehicle driven by someone who has consumed cannabis within two hours of driving.

Statistics Canada, through its quarterly national cannabis survey, found nearly 5 per cent of Canadians (about 1.4 million people) reported being in a car driven by someone who had consumed cannabis within that two-hour timeframe.

Youth and young adults aged 15 to 24 were twice as likely as their elders to ride in a car driven by a potentially impaired driver, the survey found. Most of those passengers identified themselves as current cannabis users.

In addition, the agency — which collected cannabis data from mid-May to mid-June of 2018 — found that one in seven cannabis users with a driver's licence said they'd driven a vehicle at least once within two hours of using the drug in the past three months. Men were nearly two times more likely than women to report this behaviour.

The new findings come as the Trudeau government's Cannabis Act is poised to become law on Oct. 17, paving the way for the legal sale of marijuana for recreational use across the country.

The legislation, Bill C-45, was pitched as a way to end the black market trade in the drug and make young people safer. A companion bill, C-46, passed Parliament in the spring and is already in effect; it introduced stiffer new penalties for driving while high.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the latest stats prove driving while high is already a widespread problem, and not one that materialized because of the government's legalization push. He said there is little evidence the number of drug-impaired driving incidents will increase after the government lifts the recreational cannabis prohibition.

"What is interesting is the degree to which this activity is already taking place. So those who think that this issue is going to come up only on Oct. 17 need to think again," Goodale told reporters.

"The problem exists right now. Driving under the influence of drugs has been an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada since 1925. The approaches that we have had over the years, of focusing on complete prohibition, have obviously not succeeded."

To that end, Goodale said the government has launched a social media campaign warning young people of the dangers of drug-impaired driving, and of the stiff criminal penalties they could face for driving high.

"Your life can be ruined in a heartbeat if you continue with this kind of irresponsible behaviour," Goodale said. "We are going to be conducting extensive public outreach, public communication campaigns, not just in the immediate period of the implementation of the new law but over the long term."

The vast majority of survey respondents — 82 per cent — told Statistics Canada they probably wouldn't increase their consumption once recreational marijuana is legalized.

Bill C-46 allows police to demand that a driver provide an "oral fluid sample" — saliva — if they suspect a driver is drug impaired. A positive reading could lead to further testing, including a blood test, to determine whether a criminal offence has been committed.

Three other drug-related offences have been created for drivers who consume drugs within two hours before driving. A driver who is found to have at least two nanograms, but less than five, of THC (the primary psychoactive component in cannabis) per millilitre of blood could face a maximum fine of up to $ 1,000.

A driver who has a blood level of more than five nanograms of THC, or has been drinking alcohol and smoking pot at the same time, will face a fine and the possibility of jail time. In more serious cases, a drug-impaired driver could face up to 10 years if convicted.

Statistics Canada also found 4.6 million people across the country — close to 16 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and up — reported using cannabis in the prior three-month period. Those numbers are similar to what the national cannabis survey reported last quarter.

The latest data were collected from mid-May to mid-June and include data for the provinces and the territorial capitals.

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