Critics Sound Alarm Over Secret Drug Tests of Injured Drivers

Photo by Thomas AndersonPhoto by Thomas AndersonThe B.C. Civil Liberties Association has raised serious concerns on behalf of 3,000 injured B.C. drivers whose blood will be tested for marijuana without their knowledge for a $1-million study on drugs and driving.

In a marijuana-impairment study announced last month, excess blood that is drawn in the course of treating injuries will be analyzed. The blood is collected anonymously and not used in relation to criminal charges.

However, BCCLA policy director Micheal Vonn questions how such data can be rendered anonymous, as assured by researchers who have met waiver of consent standards of major research organizations and had the approval of each of the five hospitals involved, including Nanaimo Regional.

“I would be interested to know how the toxicology results become incapable of being traced,” she said. “If the study is to examine the relationship between drugimpairment and automobile accidents, then you have to link the two somehow. If the master list is destroyed before the blood is analyzed, then presumably they are coding it somehow, because they need to know what they are analyzing.”

She is also concerned that patients worrying that blood-test results might lead to criminal charges, however remote, may contravene the “do no harm” underpinning of all ethical research.

The Canadian Institute of Health Research, which is funding the study, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada have all signed off that ethical standards have been met.

Vonn contends the issue is not that the study meets with ethical approval – “the issue is what was approved.”

The study will analyze patients’ blood “taken in relation to treatment for injuries” and will not be connected to criminal charges, insists co-investigator Scott Macdonald, a population health expert at the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. at the University of Victoria.

“All data is completely anonymized [i.e. the master list to link samples is destroyed] before blood is analyzed and toxicology results are not shared by police – in fact, our methods ensure that toxicology results cannot be traced back to the driver [not even by the investigators],” he said.

The study is aimed at defining whether drivers high on pot cause more accidents than sober drivers and that requires thousands of tests to get a representative sample of drivers.

If pot smokers in car accidents were asked for consent, they’d likely refuse requests for blood samples, skewing the necessary random aspect of the massive study, Macdonald said. “The steps taken to ensure anonymity are unlikely to adversely affect the wel-fare of the subjects.”

“No one is suggesting that the researchers are voluntarily sharing the toxicology results with police – such an action would be an already-established breach of charter rights of the patient,” Vonn added. “The question is police getting a warrant later.” She can’t understand how it could be determined that a driver caused an accident “without a linkage to the police report.”

The issue highlights the balance between the individual right to informed consent and the public interest of keeping roads safe from drivers under the influence of drugs.

“There’s never been a good study,” Macdonald said. “It’s got to be blood.”

Blood tests are necessary to reveal the potency of any THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – while urine tests detect merely the presence of pot in the system, even if smoked a month prior, he pointed out. Saliva tests indicate pot smoked in the previous 34 hours. “Neither approach can show impairment or amount of drug used,” he says.

It’s crucial information for authorities aiming at “an effective road-safety policy targeting cannabis-impaired driving,” says the study’s lead investigator Dr. Jeffrey Brubacher in the latest issue of the B.C.

Medical Journal.

The rate of cannabis use by B.C. drivers is “particularly high,” Brubacher writes.

A 2008 survey of the Island and Lower Mainland found that 8.1 per cent of drivers had been drinking and 10.4 per cent tested positive for drugs – including 4.6 per cent for cannabis.

“However, many cannabis users believe it does not impair their driving ability,” Brubacher adds, even though he says the evidence is clear that pot, like alcohol, slows reaction time and impairs staying within lanes or monitoring speed. Unlike alcohol, pot does not affect complex functions such as interpretation and anticipation of traffic patterns, he adds.

B.C. Coroners statistics from 2008 show 133 vehicle deaths, with alcohol involved in 76 of them, drugs in 19 and a combination of them in 38. But pot pales beside the vehicle deaths caused by alcohol, Macdonald stresses. “Alcohol is by far the worst drug on the road.” Currently, there are roughly two immediate roadside suspensions per month in Greater Victoria related to drug impairment, compared to at least five times that many roadside suspensions for alcohol, says Const. Bill Roberts of the Victoria Police Department.

Roberts, provincial co-ordinator for the drug evaluation classification program, welcomes the study, saying it will give police and the community a better understanding of the increasing challenge of drugs when it comes to impaired driving. “We’re finding it more and more prevalent.”

– Article from The Victoria Times Colonist.


1 Comment

  1. Tobie Venne on

    When I first read this article I knew immediately that the people directing this study lack total knowledge of Cannabinoids, Endocannabinoid Receptors etc. Further more, it scared me to think that people might actually use the data & try to convince us that “Marijuana causes car crashes!”.

    Here is my letter to the editor:

    Dr. Bruchacher’s respnse to Barth’s comment further’s the fact that this is a biased study that lacks the proper scientific method. Without a comparison group, you cannot accurately account for the ratios of driver’s who have THC in their systems versus driver’s who do not. The “culpability method” is either biased in itself or is not being exercised properly, because the substance in question & it’s effect on individuals is not even a factor in this study.

    Cannabis contains Cannabinoids, THC is the main psychoactive Cannabinoid, but at least 85 different Cannabinoids have been found in different strains of Cannabis. Each Cannabinoid causes different physiological reactions depending on which Endocannabinoid Receptor their bind to & how potent they are. All vertebrates have this Endocannabinoid System. So furthermore….. AGAIN…. the study is flawed because 2 individuals can have identical THC levels but the effect the Cannabis had on them & how they felt at the time could be worlds apart, depending on what type of Cannabis or Cannabis derivative they consumed. Also, the frequency of which an individuals consumes Cannabinoids will affect the effect it has on them, so it is no fair to be placing people who smoke once a month in the same category as those who smoke daily, say for medicinal or preventative methods.

    In addition, Dr. Brubacher states ” We then compare THC positive rates between culpable and non-culpable drivers. If the culpable drivers are more likely to be THC positive, then there is an association between THC and crash causation.” . This is not logical. He earlier states that they determine who the “culpable drivers” & “non-culpable drivers” are by the following : “To do this, we analyze police reports to determine who should have been able to avoid the crash (culpable) and who had no chance of avoiding the crash (non-culpable). This is done using strict guidelines and without knowing the driver’s toxicology results.” This lacks all regard for the scientific method, because they have know way of accurately determining who could of avoided their crash or not. I’m sure some situation are fairly obvious, but for the ones they state are “avoidable”, they immediately jump to the conclusion that their was human fault caused by intoxication. This is ridiculous, what about an accident, fell asleep, known or unknown medical issues, personal problem (yelling with spouse while driving), it is possible that none if not all these factors and many many more do not show up on the Police reports, which is the data they base they findings on.

    I think my comments along side those of Barth demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that this Study is biased & lacks proper Scientific Method. & yes.. Humans & all vertebrates in fact, have an Endocannabinoid System, Humans synthesis endogenous cannabinoids commonly called Endocannabinoids, which are the endogenous arachidonate-based lipids and are physiological ligands for the cannabinoid receptors. Cannabis contains Phytocannabinoids, the name given to Cannabinoids found in plants.

    Tobie Venne