Recreational marijuana is going to become legal on Wednesday, and concern is growing about people driving while impaired.
The federal government has rolled out tough new rules on impaired driving and a saliva test that detects THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gives you the high. And Ottawa is also waging a public campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of driving while high.
But a Statistics Canada survey revealed this summer that 14 per cent of cannabis users with a driver’s licence admitted to getting behind the wheel within two hours of consuming marijuana in recent months.
And according to the government, the percentage of Canadian drivers killed in car crashes who test positive for drugs now actually exceeds that of those who test positive for alcohol.
So what does this all mean for Canadians’ auto insurance premiums?
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If you get caught driving under the influence
The financial consequences of being convicted with impaired driving are serious — regardless of whether it’s because of pot, alcohol, or other substances.
The new federal drug-impaired driving laws, which came into effect on June 21, set the following penalties for driving while high:
- A fine of up to $1,000 for driving with 2 nanograms (ng) of THC per millilitre (ml) of blood but less than 5 ng.
- A fine of $1,000 or higher and possibly jail time if you have more than 5 ng/ml of THC in your blood.
- A fine of $1,000 or higher and possibly jail time if you have 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood and 2.5 ng/ml of THC in your system.
If you’re convicted of impaired driving you will also lose your licence for a year. For repeat offenders, the penalties are far harsher, with a maximum of 10 years in prison for impaired driving that causes bodily harm and the possibility a life sentence for causing a fatal accident.
The potential repercussions on your auto insurance are also dire. First of all, your auto insurance will not cover any damage to your vehicle. But the far more serious financial consequence is what happens to your premium.
After impaired-driving conviction, your auto insurance will drop you. If you want to continue driving, you’ll have to get a so-called high-risk policy, said Anne Marie Thomas, an insurance expert with InsuranceHotline.com, an insurance comparisons site.
For example, Thomas said, a 40-year-old married man living in Toronto and driving a 2015 Toyota Camry could see his premium rise from a range between, roughly $1,500 and $4,000, to something between $6,300 and $12,700 a year. (That’s assuming a previously clean driving record, a $1-million liability, $1,000 deductible and a car used only for pleasure.)
The cost would be even higher for impaired driving that causes a vehicle collision, Thomas said.
The criminal code conviction will stay on your record for three years, but it might take you six years to be able to access the mainstream auto insurance market again, Thomas said.
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No hard and fast rules to ensure you do not go over the legal limit
As with alcohol, there are no ironclad rules about when it is safe to drive after consuming cannabis. Impairment and blood-level concentration of inebriating substances depend things like how much you had and your body type.
The rule of thumb is that it takes three to four hours after smoking a “standard joint” for blood-level concentrations of THC to drop close to or below the legal threshold, said Douglas Beirness, senior research and policy advisor at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction.
For some people, however, it might take longer, he added. And the more cannabis you consume, the longer you’ll have to wait.
Even spending the night at a friend’s or relative’s home before driving back might not always do the trick, Beirness said. That, though, is true for alcohol as well.
“One of the most frequent times when people get caught driving impaired is in the early hours of the morning,” he said.
However, unlike a bottle of beer, which comes with a label stating its alcohol content, it’s hard to know just how much THC might be in your system after smoking, Thomas noted.
And for edibles, “it’s a totally different story,” Beirness said. “They take longer to get up there and longer to come down.”
Also, alcohol is a pretty simple molecule with a fairly straightforward and standard relationship between blood concentration and impairment. If you have a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.08 (80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood), there is a wide consensus that you are too drunk to be driving.
Detecting THC-induced impairment is more complicated.
So far, the government has come up with two road-side testing methods. One is a 12-step process known as Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST), which includes things like seeing whether you’re able to touch the tip of your nose with your index finger multiple times. The second is the recently approved saliva test, which detects THC up to eight hours after consumption.
The SFST has been criticized for producing false positives. And possibly the most serious problem with tests like the roadside cheek swab is that the presence of THC in the body “does not correlate well with impairment,” as the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put it in a report to the U.S. Congress.
All this has lawyers predicting a slew of court challenges around cannabis-related testing.
An impairment charge that’s thrown out of court won’t affect your insurance premium, Thomas said.
But that may be cold comfort for Canadian cannabis users seeking clarity around just when it is safe to get behind the wheel.
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Could insurance premiums go up even for non-users?
As with alcohol, there is no question on an auto insurance application about whether you smoke or ingest cannabis.
But your own behaviour isn’t the only thing that influences how much you’re going to pay for insurance. Your age, gender and marital status also determine the size of your premium — as do other factors like your address. If you live in a neighbourhood known for break-ins, you’ll have to pay more, no matter how well you drive.
So another question is whether pot legalization could drive up your premium even if you do not consume cannabis.
For example, a government survey found that respondents aged 16-24 were twice as likely to say they had consumed marijuana in the previous 12 months than respondents aged 25 years and older. Men were also significantly more likely than women to say both that they consumed cannabis and that they admitted to driving within two hours of use.
Could men and teenagers, then, potentially face higher premiums?
Thomas said the industry would have to have very solid statistical data showing an actual correlation between impaired driving and gender or age before being able to adjust premiums.
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