Things are more than a little, ahem, hazy as Canada prepares for the legalization of marijuana at some unspecified date this summer.
But while many details are still, ahem, up in the air, one thing is clear: police forces across the country are expecting a big increase in driving-while-high cases.
"In jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana, there has been an increase in cannabis usage while driving," Sergeant Ray Moos of the RCMP says.
The facts bear that out. The number of Colorado drivers who tested positive for marijuana use jumped 145 per cent from 2013 to 2016. Marijuana was legalized there in 2014.
A study released last summer reported that the number of collisions reported to insurance companies in Colorado, Oregon and Washington State is 3 per cent higher than what would have been expected if those states had not legalized marijuana.
Scarier, yet, is a recent Health Canada survey that showed 39 per cent of cannabis users polled said they had driven within two hours of smoking up.
With that in mind, Canadian police forces are gearing up for what's expected to come this summer when lighting up a joint is scheduled to become legal.
While much of what police forces do won't change – charging those who drive while high on drugs has been enforced for decades – there is already a lot more emphasis on those who get behind the wheel after smoking marijuana.
The RCMP, for one, have stepped up training with the proposed law in mind.
"That's aimed at giving our officers a better ability to detect cannabis impairment as well as all other drug impairments," Moos says.
While the techniques are pretty much the tried and true – looking for unsteadiness, dilated pupils, lack of focus and so forth – police do have one new tool in their arsenal. There's been a substantial increase in the number of drug-recognition evaluators across the country and police forces are expecting to triple the number of evaluators by the end of next year.
These are trained officers who make the final call on whether to lay impaired-driving charges after a driver has been taken off the road. They conduct thorough tests to determine level of impairment.
"It's a 12-step evaluation where there are over 100 pieces of information obtained," Corporal David Botham of the RCMP says. The evaluation includes tests of body temperature, muscle tone and attention abilities.
Once the expert has decided the driver is impaired and can identify the drug, he will order a blood or urine test to confirm the drug or drugs involved.
"Through all these different training initiatives and through our past and current training, we are confident we'll be in a position to tackle all forms of impaired driving," Moos says.
The proposed law, Bill C-46, also offers one new tool. If approved by the Senate, it will empower officers to use oral-fluid screening devices to detect the presence of drugs. That's basically a spit test using a swab to determine the level of drugs in the driver's system, although the standards have yet to be finalized.
While not all of the details of Canada's legislation are clear yet, one thing is evident: Those caught driving high will pay a severe price.
The proposed law dictates that as little as two nanograms of THC per millilitre can result in charges and fines up to $1,000. Anything over five nanograms could land the offender in jail.
Several provinces have stepped up penalties in anticipation of legalization.
Insurance companies are ready to make offending drivers pay, although they are waiting for the law to pass before setting standards. But existing penalties are fairly onerous for impaired drivers.
"If you're under 21 and have been convicted, your car-insurance premium may cost you more than your car," says insurance expert Anne Marie Thomas at InsuranceHotline.com, noting that once you get your licence back, you could be paying an annual premium of up to $12,000.
"If you hurt somebody … you're going to be a high-risk driver for a long time and that's going to cost you a lot of money," she says, noting that impaired driving also brings a criminal record.
But that's under today's system. Because of the controversy surrounding legalization, don't be surprised if both legal and insurance penalties become much harsher, Thomas notes.
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