Driving may now be a bit more complicated if pulled over for any reason, even if you’re not consuming any cannabis products, thanks to new legislation. But despite the new market, officers are relying on familiar field tests to check for impaired driving.
Until new testing technology emerges in the field, Calgary Police Service (CPS) will continue regular checks for levels of consumption. For now, law enforcement may not have the right technology to properly monitor impaired driving — there are no reliable field kits that can test the driver's consumption levels.
Travis Robertson, constable in the alcohol and drug recognition unit at CPS admits that standardized sobriety tests for THC levels in drivers remain inaccurate to some extent, but also says there are some telltale signs that indicate high driving.
“I'd be looking in the eyes [of drivers] for some ‘stuff’ and then additionally to that, I'll be doing an actual psychophysical test where I'm actually dividing your attention — having you do something that's mentally tasking and ... physically tasking,” he says.
“Basically, [we're] trying to, as close as we possibly can, mimic what you would have to do driving a vehicle.”
Defining the rules
Mount Royal University justice studies professor Doug King says that officers are keeping a wider eye on drivers, looking for more signs that they may be impaired.
"It used to be the case that an officer needed reasonable suspicion — that officers, through their experience, would look at how a vehicle's being operated and make judgments on suspicions that, that person is impaired.”
The new amendment, passed about two and a half months ago under parts of the former Bill-C46, calls for stricter impaired driving policies. Authorities are now able to conduct mandatory roadside checks for anyone operating a motor vehicle within their limits of reasonable suspicion.
The changes state that drivers who are caught with a score higher than two nanograms of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) per millilitre of blood could face criminal charges. The same consequences apply to those who refuse to give a breath test upon request.
But not all drivers are nervous about the new rules.
Searching through the haze
25-year-old Christian* is a local Calgarian who admits to driving high on a regular basis.
“You ask anybody that smokes weed regularly and gets behind the wheel, they’re gonna say it makes them more focused. For me, there’s no difference between driving sober or driving high. I check my blind spots the same, I shoulder-check the same, I look out for traffic the same.”
Christian has consumed cannabis every day for the past nine years. He claims that smoking for so long has desensitized him to some of the effects of marijuana, but he’s careful to ensure he doesn’t get caught either in the car or his professional life.
Robertson adds that due to the unpredictability of cannabis effects from person-to-person, CPS currently has no reliable device for detecting the restricted levels of consumption.
“Right now ... there is an instrument — Drager 5000 — that's on the market that will screen for drugs but it'll only screen for two types of drugs: Cannabis and cocaine,” Robertson explains.
“The use of that has been authorized by Canada. However, it's up to each police agency whether they actually use that device.”
Robertson says police agencies in Alberta including CPS have agreed to postpone the purchase and use of the Drager 5000 to assess the effects of cannabis on an individual's motor skills.
“We're waiting for two other devices that are currently in test phase ... to go through before we make our decision so we can make [the] best decision as to what device actually fits,” Robertson says.
He adds that CPS expects to see the new technology debut early spring this year.
If Christian were to be caught driving impaired, having smoked at least three hours prior to driving, he would be facing worse consequences under the new legislation.
After conviction, drivers face fines of up to $1,000 with possible jail time depending on circumstance — maximum prison terms have increased from five years to 10.
Temporary residents, permanent residents and refugee claimants, could be deported from the country if charged.
“It’s not likely that there are more people [driving high] than there was six months ago, it’s just that [police] are stopping more people and catching more people,” says King.
He points out that one of the main concerns raised with the amendment has to do with the subjectivity and accuracy of police evaluations for random screens.
“Impaired operation of a motor vehicle isn't necessarily linked to the level of substance[s] in your bloodstream. It has everything to do with how you operate the motor vehicle.”
While people like Christian may feel confident driving high for now, it is likely to become all the more difficult to get away with it soon. Much like alcohol, THC lingers in the user’s body, influencing their cognitive senses for a while after smoking.
The testing technology may not be on the market yet but officers are quickly getting the hang of detecting those under the influence. All it takes is a quick field test.
*Editor’s note: Subject’s name has been changed — anonymity provided by the Calgary Journal at the discretion of the advising professors and reporters.
- By Sam Nar, Emma Stevens, Megan Atkins-Baker, Antoine Fecteau, Brian Cortez