One toke over the line

Two-thirds of Man­i­to­bans don’t want to share road with mar­i­juana users, sup­port zero tol­er­ance: poll

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - SOLOMON IS­RAEL solomon.is­rael@freep­ress.mb.ca @sol_is­rael

ORE than two-thirds of adult Man­i­to­bans favour an un­com­pro­mis­ing ap­proach to polic­ing mar­i­juana-im­paired driv­ing, at least un­til an ac­cu­rate road­side test be­comes avail­able, a Probe Re­search poll con­ducted for the Win­nipeg Free Press re­veals.

That find­ing shows “a re­ally solid feel­ing that there ought to be zero tol­er­ance for peo­ple that are driv­ing while they’ve used pot,” Probe se­nior re­searcher Mary Agnes Welch said.

“I think this num­ber is driven by an abun­dance of cau­tion on the part of most Man­i­to­bans, and I think that’s not un­rea­son­able, given how new this is.”

Le­gal recre­ational cannabis will cer­tainly be new, but drug-im­paired driv­ing isn’t — and it is a crim­i­nal of­fence in Canada.

But un­like breath­a­lyz­ers that can quickly test driv­ers’ blood-al­co­hol lev­els at a road­side stop, there is cur­rently no gov­ern­ment-ap­proved de­vice to test for cannabis im­pair­ment.

•••

Under cur­rent laws, a po­lice of­fi­cer who sus­pects a driver is under the in­flu­ence of drugs could con­duct an ini­tial field so­bri­ety test, then de­tain the driver for ex­am­i­na­tion by an of­fi­cer qual­i­fied to per­form a so-called Drug Recog­ni­tion Eval­u­a­tion. The re­sults of that eval­u­a­tion, paired with a drug­pos­i­tive urine sam­ple, could be used as ev­i­dence of a crime.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is over­haul­ing that ap­proach in light of the pend­ing le­gal­iza­tion of cannabis later this year. Bill C-46 was passed by the House of Com­mons last Oc­to­ber, and is cur­rently under Sen­ate re­view.

The new law will al­low po­lice to use road­side saliva tests to con­firm the pres­ence of cannabis, es­tab­lish­ing rea­son­able sus­pi­cion of drug-im­paired driv­ing. Then, po­lice could de­mand a sam­ple of the driver’s blood to test for spe­cific lev­els of THC, the chem­i­cal com­pound that’s re­spon­si­ble for mar­i­juana’s high.

Link­ing cer­tain lev­els of THC in the blood to im­pair­ment, how­ever, is where Bill C-46 runs into trouble.

Blood-al­co­hol lim­its for driv­ers are backed up by decades of re­search that show a clear link be­tween cer­tain lev­els of al­co­hol in the blood and a de­gree of im­pair­ment that makes it dan­ger­ous to drive — hence the fed­eral crim­i­nal of­fence for driv­ing with a blood-al­co­hol con­tent greater than 80 mil­ligrams of al­co­hol per 100 millil­itres of blood (.08).

But re­searchers have yet to agree on a spe­cific level of blood-THC con­tent

Mat which a per­son is ob­jec­tively too im­paired to drive safely, a fact high­lighted by a 2017 re­port by the drugs and driv­ing com­mit­tee of the Cana­dian So­ci­ety of Foren­sic Sciences. Set­ting le­gal lim­its on blood-THC con­cen­tra­tion, that re­port said, “does not mean that all driv­ers be­low that con­cen­tra­tion are not im­paired and all driv­ers above that con­cen­tra­tion are im­paired.”

Re­gard­less, pro­posed reg­u­la­tions under Bill C-46 will do ex­actly that, es­tab­lish­ing spe­cific le­gal bound­aries on blood-THC con­tent.

A driver with two to five nanograms of THC in one millil­itre of blood within two hours of driv­ing could face fines; a nanogram is one-bil­lionth of a gram. Driv­ers with five or more nanograms of THC, or mixed lev­els of al­co­hol and THC, could face stricter penal­ties rang­ing from fines all the way up to 10 years in prison. Courts could also im­pose driv­ing pro­hi­bi­tions.

“These new mea­sures re­flect a pre­cau­tion­ary ap­proach in­tended to dis­cour­age peo­ple from en­dan­ger­ing them­selves and oth­ers by op­er­at­ing a mo­tor ve­hi­cle af­ter con­sum­ing cannabis or any other im­pair­ing drug,” fed­eral Pub­lic Safety Min­is­ter Ralph Goodale said in Fe­bru­ary.

Be­cause trace amounts of THC can re­main in the hu­man body long af­ter its psy­choac­tive ef­fects wear off, how­ever, crit­ics say C-46 risks crim­i­nal­iz­ing reg­u­lar cannabis users who get be­hind the wheel, even if they’re not im­paired.

Ad­vo­cacy group Cana­di­ans for Fair Ac­cess to Med­i­cal Mar­i­juana is “ex­tremely con­cerned” about the im­pact of the bill on med­i­cal cannabis users, pres­i­dent and CEO James O’Hara said. Those peo­ple could eas­ily ex­ceed the pro­posed blood-THC lim­its long af­ter hav­ing used the drug, he said.

“One of the key rea­sons you can ex­ceed the limit af­ter a good amount of time has passed is that THC is fat­sol­u­ble and it’s re­leased into the blood­stream over time,” he said. “There’s also no way for pa­tients to test them­selves to know if they ex­ceed that limit, and there’s a gen­eral lack of sci­ence cor­re­lat­ing lev­els of THC to ac­tual im­pair­ment in med­i­cal users.”

There were 6,650 legally reg­is­tered users of med­i­cal cannabis in Man­i­toba at the end of 2017, Health Canada says. •••

For the two-thirds of Man­i­to­bans who back a zero-tol­er­ance ap­proach to mar­i­juana-im­paired driv­ing, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment’s pro­posed Bill 26 could be just the ticket. The law adds a se­ries of strict sanc­tions to the crim­i­nal penal­ties pro­posed in Bill C-46.

Some of those sanc­tions could even ap­ply to Man­i­to­bans who haven’t been con­victed of a crime.

Under Bill 26, Man­i­toba driv­ers who fail an ini­tial road­side saliva test — which would show the pres­ence of cannabis, but not im­pair­ment — could face im­me­di­ate road­side sus­pen­sion of their driver’s li­cence rang­ing from three to 60 days. Driv­ers with two or more such sus­pen­sions in a three-year pe­riod would be forced to un­dergo an Ad­dic­tions Foun­da­tion of Man­i­toba as­sess­ment and com­plete any or­dered in­ter­ven­tions.

Man­i­toba driv­ers con­victed under fed­eral law of driv­ing with a blood-THC con­tent of two to five nanograms per millil­itre of blood (the less se­ri­ous fed­eral of­fence) would also have their li­cences sus­pended for six months, and re­peat of­fend­ers would face longer sus­pen­sions.

Man­i­to­bans ac­cused of the more se­ri­ous Crim­i­nal Code of­fences (more than five nanograms of THC or mixed lev­els of al­co­hol and THC) could have their li­cences sus­pended for three months be­fore be­ing con­victed, and their ve­hi­cles tem­porar­ily im­pounded. If con­victed, they would have their li­cences sus­pended for a pe­riod start­ing at one year and es­ca­lat­ing to life for re­peat of­fend­ers. Af­ter the sus­pen­sion ends, they would also re­quire ve­hi­cle ig­ni­tion in­ter­locks.

Bill 26 is meant to bring ex­ist­ing pro­vin­cial sanc­tions for al­co­hol- and drug-im­paired driv­ing into line with the up­com­ing fed­eral law, a gov­ern­ment spokesman said.

The “sus­pend first, ask ques­tions later” ap­proach does not sit well with some mem­bers of Win­nipeg’s le­gal com­mu­nity.

“What we have is peo­ple start­ing to get pe­nal­ized even though they’re not com­mit­ting a crime,” de­fence lawyer Michael Dyck said, re­fer­ring to the pro­vin­cial sanc­tions.

“The big­gest con­cern I have is — prob­a­bly for most peo­ple that are go­ing to be con­sum­ing mar­i­juana recre­ation­ally — even if they con­sume mar­i­juana, they feel the ef­fects have passed, they feel that they’re back to nor­mal, so to speak, if they still test pos­i­tive for THC on these (road­side saliva tests) at that point, they’re go­ing to start to lose their driver’s li­cences even though they’re not pos­ing a risk to the pub­lic, they’re not pos­ing a driver-safety risk, and they’re still go­ing to have these con­se­quences where they can’t drive for the pe­riod of time they get sus­pended for.” •••

Man­i­toba Jus­tice Min­is­ter Heather Ste­fan­son said the prov­ince asked Ot­tawa “to hold off on the le­gal­iza­tion of cannabis un­til they have a re­li­able oral test­ing de­vice in place.”

“Right now our gov­ern­ment does have con­cerns about those road­side test­ing de­vices and whether or not they will be ready,” she said in a state­ment. “We be­lieve it’s im­per­a­tive that these de­vices are in the hands of of­fi­cers that need them so they’re able to prop­erly en­force rules against drug-im­paired driv­ing and pro­tect Man­i­to­bans on our roads. In the in­terim, our gov­ern­ment is tak­ing ac­tion right now to keep Man­i­to­bans safe from drug-im­paired driv­ing.”

The Probe Re­search/Free Press poll re­sults are a strong in­di­ca­tion of wide­spread pub­lic ap­proval for the prov­ince’s stance, as did an on­line Probe Re­search/CTV Win­nipeg poll last sum­mer that sug­gested one-half of Man­i­toba’s adults don’t think “driv­ing while under the in­flu­ence of al­co­hol is worse than driv­ing while under the in­flu­ence of mar­i­juana.”

Thirty-four per cent of re­spon­dents to that poll said al­co­hol-im­paired driv­ing was worse than mar­i­juana-im­paired driv­ing, and 16 per cent were un­sure.

Welch said she was sur­prised by that re­sult, spec­u­lat­ing that it might have some­thing to do with the fa­mil­iar­ity of al­co­hol for many Man­i­to­bans, com­pared to cannabis.

“There’s all these stereo­types that would make you think that (cannabis-im­paired driv­ing) wouldn’t be quite as bad as be­ing a drunk driver — but that is not how peo­ple feel, and I think again, that is part of the new­ness of this,” she said.

“Peo­ple kind of know what it’s like to drive drunk; we’ve talked about this for gen­er­a­tions. We don’t have the same in­nate un­der­stand­ing of what driv­ing under the in­flu­ence of cannabis ac­tu­ally does to your re­flexes.”

PHO­TOS BY RICH PEDRONCELLI / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

Bill C-46 will al­low law en­force­ment to use saliva swab de­vices, sim­i­lar to ones used in Cal­i­for­nia, to test for lev­els of THC in per­sons sus­pected of drug im­pair­ment.

Re­sults from a drug test­ing de­vice.

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