“Open wide and stick out your tongue.”
This refrain may soon become just as commonly heard in the car as it is at the doctor’s office. Canada’s lawmakers have commissioned a study led by a top forensic scientist to explore oral fluids tests designed to detect drug impairment at the roadside. The study, now under way, is a strong sign of an impending crackdown on drugged drivers on Canada’s roads.
Funded by the federal Department of Justice and the Ontario Transportation Ministry, researchers will also make recommendations on the levels of various drugs that constitute impairment. It will then be up to policy makers to decide whether to write those limits into the Criminal Code, which currently contains blood alcohol limits but nothing to guide police or courts when it comes to gauging whether a driver is physically impaired by drugs. Decisions on whether to equip police officers with the oral fluids tests – if they pass muster – will likely fall to individual law enforcement agencies.
“It will be another tool for law enforcement as opposed to a replacement of the current system,” said D’Arcy Smith, general manager of National Forensic Services for the RCMP and chair of the Drugs and Driving Committee of the Canadian Society of Forensic Science, a non-profit professional organization that is co-sponsoring the study.
“Drugs are not like alcohol,” Smith said. “Setting .08 milligrams [per 100 millilitres of blood] is fairly simple. But for drugs, even drugs that have been around a long time like cocaine or morphine, you have challenges because they have individual effects with individuals,” he said.
In recent years, police forces across Canada have struggled with this factor and the resulting complications it presents for enforcing drug-impaired driving laws. They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to send officers for special drug-recognition training courses but graduates have laid few charges – just more than 1,000 in 2012 compared with more than 60,000 alcohol-impairment charges – and garnered even fewer convictions.
This is in spite of a growing body of evidence that shows drugs are just as culpable as alcohol in automobile-related fatalities. Among younger drivers who have grown up in an era in which drinking and driving is taboo, the issue of drugs and driving is increasingly problematic.
“There seems to be this lax view that smoking a joint and grabbing the car keys is okay. It’s mind-boggling,” said Marc Paris, the executive director of Partnership for a Drug Free Canada, a non-profit advocacy group. In a recent study, one-third of teenage respondents considered smoking marijuana before driving less risky than drinking. “To our surprise, one quarter of parents agreed,” Paris, said, adding: “At the end of the day, impaired is impaired.”
In Colorado, where a medical marijuana system began blooming in 2000 and recreational marijuana use was legalized in 2012, drug-related road fatalities nearly doubled from 1999 to 2010. The statistic is illustrative of both the dangers of driving high and the increasing proportion of people who drive under the influence.
To help curb the problem, lawmakers recently implemented a per se drugged driving law, meaning drivers can be deemed impaired if they’re found to have more than the legal limit of THC, which is five nanograms per millilitre of blood.
Several other U.S. states have implemented similar limits. They’re also in place in Norway and Australia, where police can legally use oral fluid tests – most of which involve licking the end of a test stick or swabbing the inside of the mouth – at the roadside for a quick result.
In Canada, Smith and his team have set out to test the top-three roadside drug tests with an aim of developing a set of specifications Canada ought to require. They’ll also endeavour to suggest per se limits for about 20 drugs, he said. As for whether the recommendations will be fit to become law, “That becomes a question for the legislators to answer,” Smith said.
For advocates, those answers cannot come fast enough.
“The bottom line with this is not about prosecuting drug-impaired drivers. It’s about creating deterrence,” said Andrew Murie, CEO of MADD Canada. “If police have the same ability to detect drugs as they do alcohol, ultimately … that’s what’ll save lives,” he said.
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