Is the federal government, and the police, prepared for a spike in impaired driving once recreational marijuana is legalized in October?
The answer is hazy.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed on June 20 that recreational use of marijuana will be legal in Canada as of Oct. 17 for people aged 19 and older. It had originally been set for Canada Day, but was delayed by procedural matters.
The federal government then announced on July 4 that it will invest just shy of $1 million to research impaired driving as it relates to marijuana. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health will conduct the research, to help Health Canada set acceptable legal limits for drivers.
Sarah Leamon, a criminal defence lawyer specializing in impaired driving law, particularly cannabis, says the Liberal government has put the cart before the horse.
“What they want to do I guess is really research this issue of how high does somebody have to be to be too high to drive. I think it’s a little bit curious and strange that they’re doing this now,” said Leamon, who has provided expert testimony in the House of Commons and before the Senate on changes to impaired driving law as it relates to cannabis.
Leamon notes that the law governing per se limits for THC, the active ingredient in pot that gets users stoned, has already been passed at between two and five nanograms for a summary offence, with penalties increasing from there.
“It is like putting the cart before the horse here. I don’t know why this research wasn’t conducted prior to them writing this particular facet of the law into that bill, Bill C-46. They should have done that research first and then establish per se limits,” she told the Now-Leader.
|Sarah Leamon, defence lawyer specializing in impaired driving law. (Submitted photo)|
“This announcement has many people wondering why the government did not complete this research well in advance of passing this law,” Leamon added.
“I think the government here, allotting that money to this particular research campaign kind of seems to indicate that perhaps their basis, or their scientific backing for setting these per se limits isn’t quite as solid as they made it out to be when they were drafting the bill so it seems to almost telegraph that there might already be some cracks here with respect to this one particular element of the bill.”
Ken Hardie, the Liberal MP for Fleetwood-Port Kells, said he thinks “that that reflection” the lawyer has made “ignores the fact that we’ve been dealing with impaired driving, involving marijuana and other drugs, prescription and non-prescription, for a long time.
“One of the things that actually kind of puzzled me when I was talking to the various officials that were working on the whole legalization side, they said that a lot of research on marijuana wasn’t done because it wasn’t a legal drug,” Hardie told the Now-Leader. “I don’t know if there was a prohibition against the research or if it wasn’t a priority.
|Ken Hardie, Liberal MP for Fleetwood-Port Kells. (File photo)|
“Whatever, there is a situation now where legalization is coming. We know we need to know more, so there is never a bad time to start.”
Hardie is hosting a town-hall meeting on cannabis this Thursday, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Fraser Heights Community Centre.
“It is all about cannabis. The focus is on giving parents the tools they need to keep their kids off of it,” he said. “It’s particularly for the Asian community, because they’ve shown the most angst over this whole issue. It’s cultural, I think, more that anything. There might be a little denial as to the fact that their kids probably are involved, maybe not to the same degree as others.
“The focus is to give those families tools they need to help their kids.”
Representatives from the school board and Fraser Health will be there, as well as Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice and attorney general of Canada. Blair is the Liberal MP for Scarborough Southwest and was Toronto’s police chief prior to being elected.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time just answering questions,” Hardie said.
Meantime, Leamon says the jury is still out when it comes to tracking impaired driving as it relates to marijuana use.
“Overwhelmingly what we’re hearing from scientists is that there isn’t the same kind of scientific backing to say that a person is impaired by THC at a certain level; it’s not the same as alcohol,” she said.
“With alcohol, experts say between between 80 and 100 milligrams per cent every person is impaired, but when it comes to cannabis, or any other drug for that matter, it’s just not there. And lots of the experts are saying that the level that the government has selected to set here for THC, between two and five nanograms for the summary offence is way too low. There’s no evidence that a person would even really be impaired at that level.
“I know that this law is going to be challenged if they’re dedicating a million dollars to researching it now or not, the law is absolutely going to be challenged when it comes to these per se limits,” Leamon said. “I think we’re going to see Charter challenges being filed the day after it’s even enacted, it’s going to be right away. I just think it’s very interesting the government is now allotting this large sum of money to research this little particular area that’s going to have very widespread implications for drivers after they’ve already passed the legislation to change the law and to enact this. To me that’s kind of problematic.”
Markita Kaulius, who founded Families for Justice after her 22-year-old daughter Kassandra was killed by a drunk driver in Surrey in 2011, predicts legalizing marijuana will lead to more impaired driving.
She notes that shortly after marijuana was made legal in Colorado impaired driving went up 17 per cent in that state, and in Washington state impaired driving went up by 13 per cent after marijuana was legalized there.
“It will be interesting to see what happens here in Canada,” she said.
Markita Kaulius, founder of Families for Justice. (File photo)
Last year, Kaulius cited to the Now-Leader a report indicating that marijuana these days is 400 times more potent than it was in the 1960s and that its active ingredient, THC, can remain in the body’s system for three months.
“When they legalize marijuana I hope they will be able to regulate the THC levels and not have it as strong as today,” she said at the time.
Her opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana has not since changed.
“I’ll be very honest, I am very disappointed in this government,” Kaulius told the Now-Leader this past week, predicting the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes will “open up a whole can of worms of problems for people.
“I can only imagine the calls the police are going to get for people saying my neighbour’s smoking and I can’t deal with the smoke but I’m having to be subject to having that come into my window, and there’s nothing the police can do – it’s legal now. They should have done a lot of this research as well.
“I think they should have done a lot of this research beforehand,” Kaulius said.
“I think it’s sad that they have pushed this through so quickly. Are the police fully prepared in the training of this? I don’t believe so. You know you can’t train every officer in this short amount of time.”
But as far as police training in this matter goes, Hardie said, “I think they already have been.
“Ever since the campaign itself in 2015, everybody’s got a pretty good sense this is coming and, again, this is not a new phenomena, right? Police have been dealing with drug-impaired driving for a long time. I think what you are seeing is a push for better technology for detection, etc.,” he said. “There’s people that have been working on this ever since it became a lot clearer something is going to happen.”
Surrey RCMP Corporal Elenore Sturko, spokeswoman for the Surrey detachment, notes that police have already for a long time been enforcing drug-impaired driving laws.
Surrey RCMP Corporal Elenore Sturko. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
“Impaired driving laws already include impairment by drugs and they have for, like, so long. We already do have in place drug recognition experts, people who can detect impairment by drugs and that’s actually been in place for a long time,” Sturko said.
Police look at driving behaviors, she explained.
“You can be impaired because your symptomology of impairment is very high, like you can’t walk and stuff like that.
“Officers receive training in the symptomology of impairment,” she said. “There’s all kinds of things we’re looking for, right. Not everybody looks like Cheech and Chong, like, right? There’s so many different types of symptoms of impairment. Driving evidence is a big part of it. There’s just different physical things police are looking for.
“There is law there already that exists that speaks to impaired driving, and impaired driving with drugs.”
Still, Leamon notes, there remains that troublesome cart before the horse.
“I don’t know how much research we need to do in order for us to make sure that we’re passing responsible laws with respect to cannabis and impaired driving offences,” she said.
“I think we could probably be researching this for a decade and pour all kinds of money into it but it’s going to be something that I don’t think is going to come obviously overnight and it may never actually be something that we can fully regulate using per se limits just because the interaction of THC in a human body is not in the same vein, no pun intended, as alcohol. Alcohol metabolizes through the blood stream.”
“Research is great,” she said, “but I’d like to see the money being used for doing research prior to passing these potentially unsound laws and also I would like to see the money being used on things like public education campaigns in order to make sure people are informed about responsible cannabis use.”
Kaulius, in the meantime, notes with frustration that her organization has been lobbying the federal government for tougher impaired driving laws for seven years now.
She said she’s been to Ottawa five times to present before the public safety committee and the justice and human rights committee, as well as the Senate.
“The bills that we’ve had put forward, there was Bill C-62, Bill C-73, Bill 246, Bill 226, and every single one of those bills got voted down by the federal government over the past seven years, but they can legalize marijuana in a year and a half?
“You know, we asked for public safety and that didn’t seem to be a concern for them. I find that really disappointing from a government that’s supposed to be there to protect the public. We submitted 120,000 signatures — that should count for something as well.”