About the Project

The goal of the Pot and Driving project is to increase awareness among young Canadians ages 14 to 18 years of the risks of cannabis-impaired driving. Canadian youth have one of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world and many young Canadians who use pot see it as a benign, mainstream drug with no significant negative consequences.

Developing the Pot and Driving Message

Early in 2005, the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) undertook an extensive environmental scan on a broad range of issues relating to cannabis: age, alcohol, audience, crash risk, designated drivers, gender, harm reduction, impairment, law enforcement, legal drugs, messages, passengers, peers, cannabis’ positive image, prohibition, region, site of use, tobacco, transportation, and video games. This research was augmented by more than 30 key informant interviews with traffic safety and drug education experts, cannabis opinion leaders, educators and youth.

In April 2005, three exploratory focus groups of young Canadians were conducted. Two were held in Toronto, one with college students and the other with high school students. The third focus group was conducted in Ottawa at the ODAWA Native Friendship Centre with high school and college students. All groups included a balance of males and females who used pot with varying rates of frequency.

Key learnings from these exploratory focus groups were that:

  • Youth do not believe that cannabis has dangerous effects on their driving skills.
  • Tolerance level (i.e. frequent versus new users) and driving experience make some difference in the level of confidence and trust behind the wheel.
  • The college group was less likely to drive under the influence of cannabis than the high school group and was more likely to be concerned about the burnt-out stage.
  • Those who were in accidents immediately after consuming cannabis discounted the possibility that cannabis was the cause and justified the outcome as a direct result of reckless driving.
  • The impression is that cannabis does not affect driving skills and that impairment can be successfully concealed.
  • Drinking and driving was considered a lot riskier than driving under the influence of cannabis, in terms of the probability of an accident as well as the likelihood of being caught by the police.
  • Lack of law enforcement and ways to effectively measure cannabis impairment increase the skepticism about the validity of the pot and driving argument.
  • Statements that highlighted the effects of cannabis that all the respondents identified with--such as slow reaction times and reduced attention span--are accurate depictions of impairment and rated as authentic.
  • After some discussion, respondents admitted to some concern about driving high in high-traffic areas and encounters with reckless drivers on the road.

We knew that the obstacle we would have to overcome was the belief that cannabis does not impair driving ability and that there is no particular risk related to driving high. We also had to keep in mind that many youth are impairment experts. To be realistic, we decided the response we should look for would be “Yeah, they might have a point. I drive fine when I’m high. But you never know what the other guy is going to do and my reaction time is probably slower. Maybe I should find another way home this time or let someone else drive.”

Testing the Message

Four campaign options were developed by Arnold Worldwide Canada. They were tested in six focus groups at five sites in four geographic locations in June 2005. Four groups were conducted in English (two in Victoria, British Columbia and two outside Winnipeg, Manitoba) and two groups in French (both in Montreal). Three of the focus groups were designated as target groups and three as supplemental groups (heavy users, aboriginal male, and multicultural French).

Each concept included a proposed television ad presented as a still or “freeze frame,” a tagline, a logo (one for all four campaigns), and either one or two poster option(s). The proposed ads were accompanied by a short scenario that was read to participants after their initial reaction to the still images were recorded.

The most successful campaign was titled “Senseless” and used an image of two pilots in a cockpit smoking pot with the tag line “If it doesn’t make sense here, why does it make sense when you drive?” No other campaign succeeded in inciting such in-depth and thoughtful feedback before the story and tagline were revealed. It was also the only campaign that encouraged participants to talk about the responsibility drivers have for the safety of their passengers. Participants across all groups made a number of comments that clearly demonstrated that the anticipated consequences of a jet airplane crash--an event with much greater impact than that of a car crash--were so disastrous as to be an effective means of encouraging serious consideration of the issue of mixing cannabis and driving.

Developing the Campaign Materials

The pot-smoking pilots therefore became the campaign image and 10 Questions were developed based on comments heard from young people in the focus groups. The rest of the campaign materials were then developed to support the image and Questions.

The Sponsors

The Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) is a national, independent, not-for-profit, voluntary association representing public health in Canada with links to the international public health community.

Financial Assistance for the Pot and Driving Campaign was provided by Canada’s Drug Strategy, Health Canada. The Drug Strategy Community Initiatives Fund aims to tackle problematic substance use on two key fronts: 1) promotion and prevention and 2) harm reduction.

National Advisory Group

Our research was guided by a national advisory group of experts with extensive experience in drug education and research, traffic safety, youth engagement, police services, harm reduction, social marketing and public health.


Cynthia Callard is the Executive Director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, a national health organization founded in 1995 with the goal to reducing smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke (www.smoke-free.ca). She has been integrally involved in tobacco-reduction initiatives since the mid-1980s when she worked as a researcher on Canada’s pioneering tobacco control legislation.

Catherine Carry is a policy analyst at the Ajunnginiq (Inuit) Centre of  the National Aboriginal Health Organization in Ottawa (NAHO), working on a range of public health issues. NAHO’s goal is to influence and advance the health and well-being of Aboriginal Peoples through carrying out knowledge-based strategies (www.naho.ca). Prior to joining NAHO she was with the Pauktuutit Inuit Women’s Association, coordinating, developing and managing health promotion projects, multi-media resources and capacity building initiatives.

Walter Cavalieri is a Founder-Director of the Canadian Harm Reduction Network and President of the Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force. Since the mid-1980s, he has been researching, applying and promoting harm reduction as the basis for therapeutic collaborations with people for whom drug use has become a problem. He is Vice Chair of the Community Programs Advisory Council at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine and actively involved in bringing a community perspective to the education and training of future physicians. He is a personal counsellor on staff at Ryerson University’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling.

Laura Goossen has worked in the area of addictions for 20 years, primarily with the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba (AFM). Much of her work has been directed to youth in counselling, prevention and educational capacities. Currently she is Director of Programs in the Winnipeg Region, overseeing all youth and adult programming in the area of alcohol, drugs, and gambling. She has served as AFM’s Director of Corporate Resources and was responsible for the community prevention program, library services and promotion of all agency programs.

Don Hewson is President and CEO of Hewson, Bridges and Smith, a firm of marketing and communications specialists.  Founded in 1976, Hewson, Bridges and Smith provides a comprehensive range of services from positioning research and brand building strategies to corporate identity programs and compelling marketing communications across all media.

Nishad Khanna is with Tiny Giant Magazine/The Students Commission (TG/SC), a diverse, global-minded charitable organization that is run by youth for youth across Canada.  The Students Commission is dedicated to creating and promoting opportunities for young people to learn and grow in a positive and safe environment.  They have been creating innovative, effective and educational programs for youth since 1991.  Their strength lies in attracting and facilitating diverse groups of young people, supported by adult allies, to work together to take action on issues that affect them.  As the lead organization of the Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement, the Students Commission believes that engaging young people in an effective and meaningful way creates resiliency, in turn building community and citizenship.

Dr. Robert Mann is the Senior Scientist, Social Prevention and Health Policy Research for the Centre for the Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto (CAMH) (www.camh.ca). CAMH-Canada’s leading addiction and mental health teaching hospital--transforms the lives of people affected by addiction and mental illness by applying the latest scientific advances through integrated and compassionate clinical practice, health promotion, education and research.  Dr. Mann is also Associate Professor, Department of Public Health Services, University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine.

Douglas McCall is the Executive Director for the Canadian Association for School Health (CASH) based in Vancouver. CASH is a national association composed of 12 provincial/territorial coalitions whose members promote the health of children and youth through school-related health promotion. The approach is to help community agencies, parents, educators, health professionals, youth and others to work together using the school as a strategic setting within the community.

Andrew Murie has been the Executive Director of MADD Canada (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) since 1997. MADD Canada is a non-profit, grassroots organization committed to stopping impaired driving and supporting victims of violent crimes (www.madd.ca). The organization’s heart is its volunteers, comprised of mothers, fathers, friends, professional experts in the anti-impaired driving field and concerned citizens who want to make a difference in the fight against impaired driving.

Mike Niebudek is a 23-year veteran police officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He is a Director with the Canadian Professional Police Association (CPPA) and is a member of the CPPA Justice Reform Committee.  The Canadian Professional Police Association is the national voice for 54,000 police personnel across Canada. It is concerned with issues of justice reform, officer safety and protection of the public. Through its 225 affiliates, membership of the CPPA includes police personnel serving in police services from Canada’s smallest towns and villages as well as those working in our largest municipal and provincial police services, including the RCMP Members Association, the Canadian Railway Police and First Nations police officers.

Dr. Christiane Poulin is a professor and holds a Canada Research Chair in Population Health and Addictions at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She was the prime force behind the standardized Student Drug Use Survey in the Atlantic Provinces. Dr. Poulin is the Principal Investigator of a research program funded by the Canadian Population Health Initiative focussing on individual and community level determinants of adolescent students’ substance use and mental health. She is the Principal Investigator of An Integrated School- and Community-Based Demonstration Intervention Addressing Drug Use Among Adolescents, a four-year, school-based intervention exploring harm minimization. Dr. Poulin was a family doctor before undertaking further training in epidemiology and Community Medicine.


Barbara Kennedy is Manager, Office of Demand Reduction, Health Canada.