Taking the high road: Cannabis-impaired driving campaigns and lessons learned

Author(s): Westmacott, Teahen
Mavis Johnson Traffic Safety Award


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Kelley Teahen, Vice President, Communications and Marketing,

 Bio: Kelley Teahen joined Parachute in 2017 and leads the injury prevention charity’s strategic communications, as well as campaigns and marketing that educate about injury prevention. Highlights include #CheckForConcussion, #HighAndLocked (cannabis safe storage) and #KnowWhatImpairedMeans, which in 2022 earned an International Association of Business Communicators Gold Quill Award and a silver for Best Campaign from the International Safety Media Awards.


The #KnowWhatImpairedMeans project was a public awareness campaign to educate young Canadians that cannabis impairs a person’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Funded by Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program, #KnowWhatImpairedMeans was a multi-phase, bilingual project launched by Parachute, Canada’s national charity dedicated to injury prevention, in 2019 and it ran through 2021. It included two phases aimed at Canadian residents ages 15 to 24. In phase two, we also developed messaging for parents under its own theme, #HaveThisTalk, and developed further messaging aimed at adults 25 to 49 under a pilot campaign in 2021 supported by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. This article discusses the campaign development, execution, evaluation and lessons learned about the challenges of promoting health and safety information about a substance that remains illegal in much of the world.


The #KnowWhatImpairedMeans campaign grew out of published research from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use (CCSA) revealing that many teens and young adults didn’t believe consuming cannabis affected their motor skills; some even believed they were actually better at physical and cognitive tasks such as driving when they were high (CCSA, 2015).

In 2017, Parachute created “myth versus reality” graphics based on CCSA’s research on teen beliefs about cannabis and driving. Each one featured a photo of a young person with a thought bubble drawn on the image containing a phrase such as “If I had only one toke, then I could drive absolutely fine”. Below each photo was a rebutting fact, such as “Cannabis doubles the risk of being in a serious crash.” Parachute paid to promote these graphics to a youth demographic on Facebook, targeting young people in Canada who don’t subscribe to our social accounts.

Our campaign got trounced by young cannabis users, who claimed we were scaremongering; they also derided the messaging, along with the messenger: What did a fuddy-duddy safety charity understand about weed?

Canadian youth have one of the highest rates of cannabis use worldwide (Inchley et al., 2020; United Nations Children’s Fund, 2013) and the use rate is twice as high among 15- to 24-year-olds than adults 25 and above (Government of Canada, 2020). And while people 16 to 34 represent 32 per cent of Canada’s population, they account for 61 per cent of all deaths resulting from cannabis-related collisions (CCSA, 2020).

With legalization then pending in Canada, the need to improve young people’s understanding of the impairing effects of cannabis on motor control and perception grew even more pressing as the argument of “don’t do this, it’s illegal” was about to go away. Prim nagging from a safety charity, no matter how evidence based, wasn’t going to change any cannabis user’s mind. We needed a new strategy.

Different Approaches and Results of #KnowWhatImpairedMeans Campaigns

First Iteration of #KnowWhatImpairedMeans

Initially, Parachute worked on our own to change our approach. In 2018, we chose cannabis impairment as our central theme for National Teen Driver Safety Week, held annually in October. Several months prior, we were chosen to be in the first RGD Designathon, set up to support charities in need of fresh creative skills. Parachute’s VP of Communications and Marketing presented a creative brief to a team of five volunteer student designers in Toronto guided by a volunteer senior Registered Graphic Designer. They worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the project before presenting their proposal. The young designers created eye-catching stylized illustrations that they assessed would appeal to youth on social media. Thanks to a grant from the Ministry of Transportation Ontario, we also created a short whiteboard-style video on #KnowWhatImpairedMeans in English and French that took a peer-to-peer narrative approach and used the student-created design assets.

The campaign and hashtag, without paid promotions, earned 6.5 million social media impressions. It also drew the attention of the Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP) of Health Canada, which was looking to expand health and safety messaging throughout Canada in light of cannabis becoming a legal substance.

Parachute applied to SUAP to expand our #KnowWhatImpairedMeans campaign and received funding from 2019 through to March 2021 to run youth-focused campaigns about the dangers of driving while high.

#KnowWhatImpairedMeans national campaign: Phase 1

Parachute engaged Mass Minority, a data-driven communications studio, to work with us. We also partnered with Academica Group, a Canadian survey firm specializing in youth audiences, to survey 1,000 Canadian residents ages 16 to 24 about their attitudes toward cannabis.

Mass Minority’s research into previous and current anti-drugged-driving campaigns got at the heart of the issue of why these ampaigns failed to resonate with their target audience. “Why don’t people listen?” asked Jack Perone, then Mass Minority’s Chief Strategy Officer. To answer, he displayed a photo of a jubilant 4-20 rally after Canada legalized cannabis and pointed to the celebrating crowd. “Quite simply: they won.”

In this milieu, anyone who tries to point out the many and real effects of cannabis on humans and their ability to perform complex physical and cognitive tasks can be dismissed with the belief, encouraged by legalization, that weed is harmless.

Early on, Mass Minority and Parachute agreed that messaging for #KnowWhatImpairedMeans wouldn’t be branded as coming from Parachute: instead, it would be a standalone campaign, with its own website and promoted through its own social media channels, @knowwhatimpairedmeans. We would fish where the youth fish swim, going to places and media where youth gather and engage influencers who cannabis users followed and trusted.

While our pre-campaign survey conducted by Academica revealed that three quarters agreed cannabis can impair someone’s ability to drive, close to 40 per cent had engaged in risky behaviours related to cannabis and driving – including 35 per cent who said they had been a passenger in a vehicle driven by someone who had used cannabis in the past four hours (Parachute, 2019).

Our campaign, we decided, would lead people to conclude, themselves, that some activities – including and especially driving – are things you shouldn’t do while high. Our survey results also shifted our focus from messaging for drivers only to creating messaging that would resonate with a passenger faced with the prospect of being in a car with a cannabis-impaired driver.

This resulted in the development of two ads that depict potentially dangerous scenarios exacerbated by teens and young people putting their lives in the hands of people impaired by cannabis.

Watch “Skydiver”

Watch “Rock Climber”

We also created three short GIF-style videos that focused on less dangerous but nevertheless embarrassing things that can happen when you try do something requiring attention and in-control motor skills while high from cannabis use:

The campaign engaged two Instagrammers popular in cannabis culture, Toronto comedian @thatdudemcfly and Montreal actor @afrowasi, to promote our theme to their followers. Additionally, Newad, an out-of-home advertising company, donated space on its digital sign network at colleges, universities and restaurants to play Skydiver and Rock Climber videos: we targeted video ads to the 15-to-24 demographic on Facebook and Instagram and the Parachute team promoted the campaign organically (without paid posts) as our theme once again for National Teen Driver Safety Week 2019.

The campaign garnered 18 million impressions that came from social media promotions, digital sign plays on campuses, the number of people who attended the venues featuring the Impaired installation and social media posts by the two influencers.

Photo of sculpture with the vertical word Impaired lit up in red.
To kick off the campaign in August 2019, Mass Minority designed and installed an Instagrammable “Impaired” installation at the three-week-long Canadian National Exhibition, popular with the 15- to 24-year-old demographic we wanted to reach. The sculpture, 3.5 metres high, was made up of words to describe what you feel like when you use weed: high, ripped, lit, stoned. When strung together, you see the vertical word forming: “Impaired.” The installation later moved to Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto for October’s National Teen Driver Safety Week, prompting more user-generated photos shared on Instagram.

#KnowWhatImpairedMeans: Phase 2

Developed in 2020 and running in fall 2020 and winter 2021, we expanded the #KnowWhatImpairedMeans assets and messaging, and developed a separate campaign geared to parents of teens, encouraging them to #HaveThisTalk about impairment’s negative effects on driving.

Parents serve as one of the key influencers for adolescents when making decisions about risky behaviour, including those related to driving (Morrish et al., 2011). According to Health Canada data from 2021, however, only 11 per cent of parents have discussed the risks of driving under cannabis influence with their teenagers.

For the parent campaign, Parachute decided to brand it under the Parachute name, given our charity’s history communicating with parents about their children’s safety through our annual Safe Kids Week, among other initiatives. Phase 2 of the youth-oriented #KnowWhatImpairedMean campaigns continued to be promoted through separate social media accounts not associated with Parachute.

Even in the span of just one year, the social media landscape for youth had changed. Fish ages 15 to 24 were now swimming to TikTok, away from Facebook. While we continued to use assets from phase 1 of the campaign, we created three more short videos following the 2019 campaign theme, but in a format popular for TikTok, showing young people who are high messing up on:

Both the Phase 2 youth campaign and parent campaign faced challenges unique to communications about cannabis in a world where the substance remains illegal in most places apart from Canada. Social media companies, based either in the U.S. or China, have strict rules disallowing posts about drugs, including cannabis. Tik Tok is particularly strict: you can’t get an ad accepted if it includes the phrase “while you’re high.” Parachute remade our TikTok videos using emojis representing a leaf and the wind, which the cannabis community on TikTok have put together as symbols to mean “get high”.

Mass Minority created a scenario about the need to “Have This Talk” about cannabis-impaired driving between a mother and daughter, and another between a father and son, using a humorous approach. Parachute has a longstanding relationship with Bell Media, which agreed to donate airtime to run these videos as 30-second Public Service Announcements (PSAs). Our team also developed a new webpage for #HaveThisTalk at parachute.ca to provide information and resources for parents.

The youth-oriented campaign ran in fall 2020 and #HaveThisTalk ran in fall 2020 and again over January-February 2021 on TV. The campaign received 60.8 million impressions: 53.9 million potential views from 2,370 plays on Bell Media networks and stations, and 6.9 million impressions from social media, including 2.4 million from our TikTok ads.

Parachute hired Academica to conduct a second survey of Canadian residents ages 16 to 24 in fall 2020, after the phase 2 youth campaign had wrapped. Of those surveyed, 76 per cent of respondents felt the “Know What Impaired Means” campaign is moderately to extremely effective in communicating the message, which is to highlight the negative effect cannabis has on motor and cognitive skills (Parachute, 2020).

#KnowWhatImpairedMeans: Phase 3

 While Parachute’s contract with Health Canada wrapped in March 2021, we knew that Canadians 15 to 24 were not the only people who needed to hear and respond to our #KnowWhatImpairedMeans messaging. Historically, the age groups with the highest percentage of fatally injured drivers who test positive for cannabis are 16 to 19-year-olds and 20 to 34-year-olds. However, in recent years, the percentage among 45 to 49-year-olds has been comparable to 16 to 19-year-olds (Traffic Injury Research Foundation, 2019).

The emerging data on drug-impaired driving-related deaths among drivers in young to middle adulthood indicated an opportunity to expand our efforts to this target audience. Thanks to funding from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, Parachute developed a third campaign phase of #KnowWhatImpairedMeans, launching in summer 2021 and aimed at cannabis users ages 25 to 49 within the Province of Ontario.

This campaign acknowledged there is so much choice now in the legal, retail cannabis market. These products are marketed based on the effect the consumer wants, in the format the consumer wants, whether bud, edibles, beverages or oils. We want to convey a clear campaign message: no type of cannabis makes you a safe driver. As an adult, you can choose to use cannabis for a variety of reasons and effects, but don’t use cannabis and drive after. As one video states: “There’s a type of cannabis for when you just want to snack and binge … but not for driving to get more popcorn.”

Parachute worked with our agency Mass Minority to develop two GIF-style social media videos and a 30-second PSA, all promoted through social media to Ontarians ages and 25 to 49. Our team also developed a campaign ad that ran in KIND, a cannabis lifestyle magazine distributed through cannabis retailers with a circulation of 1.2 million.

The promoted videos garnered 1.4 million social media impressions in summer 2021, reaching 592,000 Ontarians ages 25 to 49 and driving 15,292 visits to Parachute’s #KnowWhatImpairedMeans information webpage.

Conclusions and Next Steps

Cannabis impairment affecting driving skills remains an issue in Canada: The Canadian Cannabis Survey 2022 continues to track trends, with the 2022 survey showing a slight increase in cannabis users who say they have driven a vehicle within two hours of using over 2021. When asked why, the most common response (84 per cent) is that they did not feel impaired. The 2022 survey also shows growing use of legal cannabis stores as a source for cannabis purchase (61 per cent) so our retail-environment, non-judgmental messages has only grown in audience resonance.

We are currently seeking funding to take our campaign developed in Ontario for adults 25 to 49 nationwide across Canada: We need to create matching assets for this campaign in French for the Quebec francophone market and develop the magazine ad into an animated digital sequence suitable for billboards and mall boards. We would then share these through a paid media campaign on social, out-of-home and broadcast media and continue to push for awareness of how cannabis negatively affects the reflexes and motor skills necessary to safely operate a motor vehicle.


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Parachute Vision Zero Case Study Series Issue 11: Taking the high road Traffic Injury Research Foundation. (2019). Marijuana use among drivers in Canada,  2000-2016. https://tirf.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Marijuana-Use-Among-Drivers-in-Canada-2000-2016-8.pdf

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