From the very beginning, public safety has been at the forefront of the federal government’s new approach to cannabis.
The current law has failed. Every year in Canada, illegal profits from cannabis sales, worth some $7 billion, flow into the pockets of criminals and, according to a UNICEF study in 2013, Canadian young people have the highest rate of cannabis use in the developed world.
When the government introduced legislation to legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to cannabis (Bill C-45), we made it clear that our goal was to keep it out of the hands of our kids and to keep those profits out of the hands of organized crime. At the same time, we also tabled legislation (Bill C-46) to strengthen our laws to protect the public from both drug and alcohol-impaired drivers.
Drug-impaired driving has been an offence under the Criminal Code since the 1920’s, but enforcement has always been complicated. Drug impairment is certainly a serious concern today – it’s a major contributor to fatal road crashes. The percentage of Canadian drivers killed in vehicle crashes who test positive for drugs (40%) now actually exceeds the numbers who test positive for alcohol (33%).
That’s why we’re providing law enforcement with more tools, while working to help all Canadians understand the potentially lethal risks of driving high.
Currently, when a police officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that a driver has drugs in their body (because of a distinctive smell, red eyes, etc.), he/she can demand that the driver submit to a Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) which consists of a number of physical manoeuvres at the roadside (e.g., walking, turning, etc.). If the driver fails to perform competently, the officer may have reasonable grounds to demand the driver go to a police station for a full Drug Recognition Evaluation (DRE), including bodily fluid tests (e.g., urine sample) as a confirming measure. Depending on the results, a charge of drug-impaired driving may be laid.
To complement existing laws and procedures, Bill C-46 would add two new features. It would authorize police to use roadside oral fluid screening devices to better detect drivers with drugs in their systems. It would also create several new, simpler and more objective offences of driving with certain prohibited levels of drugs in their blood.
If an officer has a reasonable suspicion that a driver has drugs in their body, he/she would be authorized to demand an oral fluid sample. A positive result would assist the officer in developing reasonable grounds to believe that an offence has been committed and the officer could then proceed to demand a blood sample.
If the sample reveals a prohibited level of certain drugs in their blood, the driver could be charged with one of the proposed new offences. A low drug level could result in charges for a summary conviction offence for which the penalty is a fine. Higher concentrations or a combination of drugs and alcohol or repeat offences would attract tougher procedures and penalties, including jail time.
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.
The new roadside oral fluid screening devices (noted above) are already in use as part of the evidentiary chain in Australia, France, Spain, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Last winter, Public Safety Canada conducted a successful pilot project in conjunction with seven police forces across the country which demonstrated that the devices are easy to use and worked well at the roadside, even in harsh Canadian weather. The devices are now being further evaluated by the Canadian Society of Forensic Science to confirm they can be certified for use.
The federal government is investing $274 million to support deterrence, detection, law enforcement and border controls under our new cannabis regime. This includes funding for training frontline officers in how to recognize the signs and symptoms of impaired driving – increasing the numbers of both SFST and DRE trained officers – and deploying roadside screening devices.
We’ve also launched a public awareness campaign in social media, online, on television and elsewhere to counter persistent myths and misconceptions about cannabis-impaired driving.
It has a simple message: Don’t drive high!
A lot of people need to hear and heed this advice. At best, they downplay the deadly risks; at worst, they flat out don’t believe there’s any danger at all. The reality is that drug impaired driving is extremely dangerous and can ruin your life in a heartbeat.
We’re very grateful to have the strong support of other levels of government and many road safety advocates including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada, the Canadian Automobile Association, Young Drivers of Canada and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
Together, we’re determined to get this right. Our plan will better keep cannabis out of the hands of youth, displace the illegal market, give law enforcement new tools and correct myths about impaired driving. It’s a comprehensive, common sense approach that has a far greater chance of success than prohibition – which has proven to be an abject failure for more than 90 years!