Driving under the influence - Smoking ganja could be a major factor in road accidents, fatalities
Recognising that many persons are unaware that smoking ganja significantly reduces their coordination and driving skills, resulting in what is known as drug driving, the Ministry of Health is seeking to both introduce laws to protect the public from drug drivers, as well as a public-education campaign on the issue.
"The reality is that we need to do more education in regards to drug driving, and the truth is, we are quite concerned about driving under the influence of any mind-altering substance, be it alcohol or marijuana, especially given the alarming number of road fatalities and high accident rate, and so on," Professor Wendel Abel, chairman of the board of the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA), told The Gleaner.
"So we recognise that we need to step up our public awareness on these issues and to work with the relevant government entities to ensure that the appropriate legislation and regulations are in place to reduce the incidents of driving under the influence of drugs."
Speaking to The Gleaner yesterday following the launch of the Marijuana Public Education Campaign at the Ministry of Health's New Kingston office, Abel said he was not aware that there were any clearly designed studies looking at drug driving as a causal effect in road accidents and fatalities. However, it is something that would be addressed going forward.
"There is no doubt that smoking marijuana does affect motor coordination, reaction time, distance perception, and so on, so the public-education campaign will definitely address this issue, while the Government seeks to introduce legislation to deal with it," said Abel.
Up to July 3, there were 165 fatal traffic crashes in which 178 persons were killed.
Studies have indicated that driving under the influence of marijuana makes a person more likely to get into an accident, which is likely because of the fact that ganja slows a person's response time.
Although the use of ganja is still illegal in Jamaica, under the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2015 (also referred to as the Ganja Reform Law), which was passed into law in February and took effect on April 15, the personal use of marijuana is now decriminalised (up to two ounces), including for medicinal and religious purposes.
However, recognising that ganja use has increased, following the introduction of the new law, the Government has sought to enact several initiatives to address issues that have stemmed from that. Among them is the amendment to the Road Traffic Act, which will address a number of issues, including drug driving.
One of the proposed amendments is a fine of $10,000 for persons who drive under the influence of marijuana.
"At this stage, ministers (Omar) Davies and (Morais) Guy are making some amendments to the Road Traffic Act to bring back to Parliament, so we expect the House to pass it shortly. And those amendments will include a number of issues, including driving under the influence of marijuana," Minister of Health Dr Fenton Ferguson said.
"Once we make the amendments to the Road Traffic Act, and we are very clear about it, it will bring greater clarity to this issue. I am hoping that before we go off for break in August, we should have passed the amended act in the House."
Michael Tucker, executive director of NCDA, added that some of the recommendations under the amended Road Traffic Act will include testing drivers for the use of ganja, just as they currently do for alcohol.
"There is a way of testing for ganja, where you can swab and know if a person had smoked it within the last few hours. And, of course, there is the blood test," said Tucker.
In March, the United Kingdom (UK) introduced drug driving laws, setting legal limits for drivers for blood levels of both illegal and prescription drugs.
Using roadside swab saliva tests ('drugalyser' testing kits - similar to the breathalysers used to catch drunk drivers), the UK police now test suspected drivers for a number of drugs, including cannabis. The legal limit is two micrograms of THC (the active ingredients in cannabis) per litre of blood.
In the meantime, the newly launched three-year $333 million Marijuana Public Education Campaign, titled 'Ganja: Know The Facts; Know How To Act', has a number of objectives. Among them, to reduce by 30 per cent, the number of persons arrested by the police for possession in public, of over two ounces of ganja, by the end of 2017. It will also seek to reduce by 30 per cent, the caseload of the criminal courts for possession of ganja for the same period.
Another crucial aspect of the campaign is to decrease by 15 per cent, the number of students between the ages of 13 and 18 who start smoking ganja while still in school.
Ferguson said that while marijuana can be used in a positive way, with several health and economic benefits to be gained, there was a flip side that needed to be addressed, which has to do with the fact that ganja is also a psychoactive substance and its use is widespread, especially among the youth.
"The detrimental health effects of smoking cannot be ignored, and this campaign will go a far way in educating and sensitising the population on this major health issue," said the minister.
"I want to call on colleague ministers to continue to work together in the best interest of the Jamaican people. I am also calling on our parents and guardians to get to know all the information that is necessary on this new legislation so you are able to protect yourself and to teach and guide your children."
GANJA: KNOW THE FACTS, KNOW HOW TO ACT
* According to the World Health Organisation, 155 to 250 million persons across the world, ages 15-64, use some type of psychoactive substance – such as ganja, cocaine, non-prescribed medication.
* Globally, cannabis is the most commonly used, with 129-190 million persons using the substance.
* According to the Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey 2008, of the population 15-74 years, 13.5 per cent used marijuana.
* By the age of 16 years, 19 per cent of Jamaican smokers had initiated smoking.
* According to the National Secondary School Survey 2013, alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes use were higher among 15-16-year-olds.
* 30.8 per cent of Jamaican students report that drugs were available at their schools; twice said it was available near their school.
* According to the National Council on Drug Abuse, between 2006 and 2011, 47 per cent of persons admitted for treatment and rehabilitation were for issues associated with ganja use.
* Over 95 per cent of adolescents referred to NCDA by schools or families were for marijuana use.
* According to research, adolescents, pregnant women, unborn children and persons predisposed to mental disorders were significantly more likely to be harmed by ganja use.