Drugged Driving vs Drunk Driving: Key Differences

Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs poses a significant risk to public safety. While drunk driving has been a focus of public awareness campaigns for decades, the dangers of drugged driving have received less attention.

As per data from Statistics Canada, in 2019, there were 6,453 reported cases of drug-impaired driving, accounting for 8% of all impaired driving incidents and marking a 43% rise from 2018. Meanwhile, alcohol-impaired driving, which was similarly affected by new legal provisions, experienced a 15% growth in 2019.

Distinguishing Between Alcohol and Drug-Impaired Driving

The legal threshold for alcohol is determined by the level that could compromise an individual's capacity to drive safely. This benchmark forms the foundation for Impaired Driving Charges and highlights the primary difference between alcohol and drug-impaired driving at present.

In the case of illicit and legal drugs, there is no consensus on a specific limit or threshold that would indicate an impairment of driving abilities. This is due to the absence of a well-defined dose-response relationship for the various impairing drugs. Consequently, drugged driving charges may be more difficult to substantiate or contest.

The effects of drug impairment can fluctuate over time, and the influence of different drug concentrations will rely on a range of factors, including:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Usage frequency
  • Metabolic rate and body fat
  • The presence of additional impairing substances

Moreover, the impact of certain drugs might wane over time, whereas elevated levels of other drugs may not directly result in heightened impairment. This intricate nature makes it challenging to set a universal standard for drug-impaired driving.

Detection and Testing

Detecting alcohol impairment is relatively straightforward, with standardised methods like breathalyser tests and field sobriety tests. Detecting drug impairment, however, is more challenging depending on the drug in the driver’s system. There is no universally accepted standard test for measuring drug impairment, and drug detection times vary depending on the substance, dosage, and individual metabolism.

Oral fluid drug screeners are fast, non-invasive, and accurate devices that police can use to detect the presence of certain drugs, including THC and cocaine, in a driver's oral fluid. If an officer reasonably suspects a driver has drugs in their system based on objective facts such as red eyes, muscle tremors, agitation, or abnormal speech patterns, they can demand an oral fluid sample.

A positive test result, combined with other observed signs of impairment or drug use, may provide grounds for further investigation, including a demand for a blood sample. Additionally, police may require a driver to submit to a Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) or a Drug Recognition Expert Evaluation (DRE) as part of their investigation.

Prohibited Levels

In addition to the offence of impaired driving, there are separate offences of having specified prohibited levels of alcohol, cannabis or certain other drugs in the blood within two hours of driving.

Alcohol: 80 milligrams or more (mg) of alcohol per 100 millilitres (ml) of blood.

Cannabis (THC): There are two prohibited levels for THC, the primary psychoactive component of cannabis: it is a less serious offence to have between 2 nanograms (ng) and 5 ng of THC per ml of blood. It is a more serious offence to have 5 ng of THC or more per ml of blood.

Combination of alcohol and cannabis: The prohibited levels of alcohol and cannabis, when found in combination, is 50mg or more of alcohol per 100ml blood and 2.5 ng or more of THC per ml of blood.

Other drugs: Having any detectable amount of LSD, psilocybin, psilocin ("magic mushrooms"), ketamine, PCP, cocaine, methamphetamine or 6-mam (a metabolite of heroin) in your system within two hours of driving is also prohibited.

The prohibited level for GHB is 5mg or more per litre of blood, since the body can naturally produce low levels of this drug.

Source: Government of Canada: Impaired Driving Laws

Legal Consequences

Both drunk and drugged driving are illegal and carry serious penalties, including fines, licence suspension, and possible imprisonment.

The penalties for drunk driving and drugged driving are nearly identical:

1st offence: Compulsory minimum fine of $1000; Maximum imprisonment of 10 years

2nd offence: Required minimum 30 days incarceration; Maximum imprisonment of 10 years

3rd offence: Obligatory minimum 120 days imprisonment; Maximum imprisonment of 10 years

Cannabis use and Impaired Driving

Marijuana's impact on individuals can vary significantly. Several factors contribute to these differences, such as:

  • The method of ingestion
  • The amount consumed
  • The specific strain of marijuana
  • THC concentrations

Due to the diverse effects of these factors, there is no definitive guideline on the "safe" amount of marijuana consumption before driving. Additionally, it is uncertain how long one should wait after using marijuana before it is considered safe to operate a vehicle.

Effects of Marijuana on Driving Skills

Marijuana impairs driving capabilities by affecting the following skills:

  • Motor coordination
  • Response time
  • Short-term memory and focus
  • Maintaining a steady course
  • Sustaining consistent and safe speeds
  • Decision-making abilities
  • Coping with unforeseen situations

As a result, it is recommended to avoid driving if you have recently used marijuana.

Other Drug Use and Impaired Driving

Laws and regulations regarding impaired driving generally focus on the driver's ability to operate a vehicle safely, rather than the specific substance causing the impairment. In addition to cannabis, prescribed drugs (such as opioids, cold medications, and painkillers), over-the-counter medications, and illicit drugs (such as cocaine and LSD) impair driving ability.

Over-the-counter medications and prescribed drugs are legal when prescribed by a medical professional, driving under their influence is still considered impaired driving if they hinder the driver's ability to operate a vehicle safely. It is essential for drivers to read the labels and follow the recommended dosages for these medications to minimise the risk of impairment.

The Influence of Alcohol on Driving Performance

Alcohol impairs driving by affecting various cognitive and motor skills that are crucial for safely operating a vehicle. When a person consumes alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream and affects the central nervous system. The extent of impairment depends on factors such as the amount of alcohol consumed, the rate of consumption, body weight, and individual tolerance. Some key ways alcohol impairs driving include:

  • Reduced reaction time
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Drowsiness and fatigue
  • Overconfidence

Since even minimal quantities of cannabis can impact reaction time, driving with even a trace amount in your system can heighten the risk of accidents. Regardless of whether you've consumed alcohol, used drugs, or taken legal medications, operating a vehicle while impaired is always inadvisable.

If you have been charged with drugged or drunk driving, call or text us 24 hours a day, seven days a week at (306) 585-1777.

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