In the eyes of the law, where’s the breathalyzer for drugs?

If we can’t get our game together on alcohol, what’s going to happen when we add legalized marijuana to the mix?

Originally published April 18, 2017

Canada loves being way up there, even number one, in those surveys about the best places to visit or live. Not so cool? We’re number one in alcohol-related vehicle deaths among wealthy countries, according to a study by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) reporting on 2015.

If we can’t get our game together on alcohol, what’s going to happen when we add legalized marijuana to the mix?

I pity the cops tasked with judging a cornucopia of drug-addled drivers, dabbling from both the illegal and legal sides of the aisle. Statistics are magic things; traffic fatalities are indeed down 43 per cent since 2000, but “proportion of deaths linked to alcohol impairment was 34 per cent, higher than any of the other countries in the survey.” Car manufacturers are saving us from ourselves with truly innovative safety features, but we merrily go on testing them with a hardcore of drunks who refuse to give up the wheel.

Police, politicians and advocacy groups have long been dealing with tackling booze, which continues to make up the vast majority of impaired charges. For instance, in Toronto last year, there were 1,376 total impaired arrests with 86 impaired by drugs. In 2015, there were only 24 “impaired by drug” arrests. The more accessible a substance is, the more likely police will see an increase in the number of drug-impaired arrests. But with the looming legalization of marijuana, it’s hard not to anticipate a corresponding spike in not just its usage, but acceptance. Washington state reports since legalization of cannabis five years ago, a full one-third of the impairment charges issued to drivers is for the drug.

I don’t care if you smoke dope; I do care if you get behind the wheel after you’ve done so. Pot can sabotage your reaction time and your focus; if legality entices a new group of smokers (and drivers) who haven’t previously experienced the effects of the drug, a whole new landscapes of impairment will be on our roads.

Police agencies in all jurisdictions of Canada have been working for years to train specialty officers to detect impairment in drivers, due to those substances not readily scientifically measured roadside: the cocaine, the meth, the opiates, the depressants and the hallucinogens. Roadside sobriety tests have long included more than a blow test, and recent pilot programs are introducing saliva tests.

Other countries have introduced drugalyzers, which test for the top eight prescribed drugs – Clonazepam, Diazepam, Flunitrazepam and Lorazepam, to name a few – and the top eight street drugs, including cocaine, cannabis/cannabol, LSD, ecstacy, etc. The drugalyzer units used in Great Britain cost about $4,000 Canadian and about $10 for a test strip.

Police in parts of Canada are already testing similar units. Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and Gatineau, as well as the RCMP in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and Yellowknife, are administering a saliva test to those who volunteer to anonymously provide a sample. The results can’t be used in court, and are being used to establish protocol going forward on how or if the units might be used.

Constable Clint Stibbe with Toronto Police Services warns that just because a drug is legal, doesn’t mean you will avoid a charge if you are under impairment from it. As of February this year, their Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) are recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada; with no current measurable levels of impairment in place as there are for alcohol – in most parts of Canada, .08 BAC is indictable territory for impaired, but .05 BAC is where suspensions and impoundment set in – testimony from these DREs is accepted in court as expert testimony at trial.

Cannabis presents its own unique hurdles for judging impairment; the drug is estimated to stay in your system for about 30 days, but that number can stumble wildly depending on if you’re a one-time or long-term user. Measuring the buzz, or impairment, can be still harder. Stibbe warns that while a saliva test is a tempting threshold, it is simply another tool for law enforcement to use to augment their powers of detection. With a report released last week concluding for 2017, “the Toronto Police Service has seen an 11 per cent decrease in alcohol-related impaired driving arrests. Drug-impaired driving arrests have increased by approximately 18 per cent year-to-date,” they’re going to need all they can get.

There are a lot of substances, both legal and illegal, that people can ingest before getting behind the wheel. I doubt the legalization of cannabis will ever approach the spectacular carnage we’ve managed to achieve with alcohol, and the prohibition of that product did little to stop it anyway. We will be seeing new and improved ways for people to twist under the law and pay a lot of lawyers to help them.

But keep in mind that at this juncture, with or without a definitive version of a breathalyzer for street drugs, those DREs are considered experts in the eyes of the law.

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One response to In the eyes of the law, where’s the breathalyzer for drugs?

  1. Pat says:

    It’s an issue, but I’d be more concerned about people on OXY and Meth. While weed impairs, I think there’s probably less chance of a crash than on most drugs.
    Texting is arguably more dangerous, reading a book or playing guitar is more dangerous, as are many things I’ve observed while driving. (Use your imagination)

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