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It is rare for Constable Mark Cattani to come across a driver impaired solely by cannabis.

The certified drug recognition evaluator – who will soon be one of six DRE-certified officers with the Thunder Bay Police Service – says northwestern Ontario’s largest city has gotten more drug-impaired drivers off the road since recreational cannabis legalization took effect. While the total number of impaired driving charges laid annually by the TBPS is on track to hold steady around 180 for this year, Const. Cattani said a much higher proportion of those charges in 2019 will be for drug-based impairment.

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“Rather than being 95 per cent alcohol and 5 per cent drugs, it is now coming together,” he explained during an interview at TBPS headquarters near the Lakehead University campus. “This year, although we still have another three months to go, we are at 20-per-cent drug impaired. That is well above the national average, the provincial average and certainly above recent history here in Thunder Bay.”

Funding for increased investments by TPBS and other law enforcement agencies across Canada to combat drug-impaired driving came as a direct result of cannabis legalization. In September 2017, for example, the federal government announced $274-million would be spent “to support law enforcement and border efforts to detect and deter drug-impaired driving” and provincial governments nationwide have also put millions of dollars into the effort.

“All of that money has been given to [police] services by the provincial and federal governments because of cannabis legalization, there was dedication from them and the municipal level as well, to increase funding for services to deal with what was expected to be a large spike in cannabis impairment,” Const. Cattani said. “In Thunder Bay, we haven’t necessarily seen that.”

Cannabis is often present in the blood test results of people arrested for drug-impaired driving, Const. Cattani said, “but we haven’t really seen a noticeable presence of just cannabis, not to say we haven’t had it, but it is unusual to have someone who is impaired solely by cannabis.”

“We tend to see central nervous system stimulants and narcotic analgesics make up the majority of our drug-impaired drivers and often times it is both,” Const. Cattani said. “It is the two, three or four drugs in a person’s system at a time.”

The DRE process usually happens at the station after a driver has already been arrested and takes about an hour to complete. During the evaluation, Const. Cattani is trained to record several data points ranging from a driver’s pulse, blood pressure, pupil size and muscle tone.

“Crack cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant, so it does certain things to your brain, your brainstem and your nerves so we would expect to see things like an elevated pulse rate, elevated blood pressure, rigid muscle tone, dilated pupils,” he said. “We would not see what is called costagmous, which is an involuntary jerking of the eyes, which is linked to depressants like alcohol and a couple other categories of drugs.”

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His training involved two weeks of classwork at the Ontario Police College outside of London followed by live certification testing at a Canadian-run facility in Jacksonville, Florida.

“They bring in people who are drug impaired, and you don’t know what it is or that they are impaired at all because some people are not,” Const. Cattani said. “Then you do the testing with instructors supervising all of it and you have to have a certain accuracy rate to pass. Then there are written exams where you have to get a very high grade.”

Test subjects are compensated for their time, Const. Cattani said. Asked where they acquire the drugs, he smiled before responding “that is up to them.”

“They are essentially saying I have used drugs and I am here for testing,” he said, “nobody gets charged as a result.”

In addition to getting more officers certified as DREs, the TBPS has also been giving standardized field sobriety test training to more front-line officers, Const. Cattani says has increased their ability to recognize impairment that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. TPBS also recently purchased three saliva-testing machines.

“More officers being trained to identify drug-impaired drivers at the roadside, whereas in years past might have been written off as medical impairment or just something they couldn’t explain, or someone just acting weird, now, because of our training, we can say with confidence that this is drug impairment that we are seeing,” he said. “It is like having another tool on your belt.”

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