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Cops catching more stoned drivers as methods of detection improving

By Hempology | December 22, 2005

Drug recognition, field sobriety courses aid police at roadside

Surrey RCMP operate a drunk-driving roadblock on North Bluff Road in White Rock on Dec. 9. More and more, officers are on the lookout for other drugs besides alcohol when it comes to driving.
Stoned drivers — and not just the drunk ones — are finding themselves pulled off B.C. roads by police trained to spot people driving under the influence of drugs.

Langley RCMP’s Cpl. Diane Blain said over a recent two-day period seven drivers were given 24-hour suspensions for driving under the influence of marijuana.

“Our methods of detecting it are better and therefore we are able to catch more,” said Blain yesterday.

“We have more and more people trained with our drug-recognition expert course and as well as our standardized field sobriety testing course.”

She said officers trained in drug recognition are able to determine whether someone is on drugs and what kind of drugs have been used.

“They use various behavioural tests to determine that and it’s very effective,” said Blain.

High drivers can be charged under the same section of Canada’s Criminal Code as drunk drivers, she said.

“It is impaired driving, but it’s impaired driving by drug rather than alcohol,” said Blain. “You are facing the same kind of penalties. There’s a provision in the code for a blood test — we can do a blood demand to determine what kind of drugs are being used.

“We can establish with these tests that the individual’s ability to operate a motor vehicle is impaired by a drug.

“With that and making good notes and conducting all the proper tests . . . we can submit a charge to the courts for impaired driving by drug.”

Blain said it’s just as dangerous to drive on drugs as it is on alcohol and maybe even more so.

“The use of marijuana over recent years has become more socially acceptable,” she said. “There seems to be a certain tolerance but the community doesn’t realize how the drug stays in the body for 24 hours.

“It’s not like you have a few drinks and then a few hours later you sober up and the effects of the alcohol will be gone.

“If you use marijuana you are impaired for 24 hours after that. It stays in the muscles. If you were to take a urine test two or three days after the use . . . you will still show positive for use of marijuana.”

Canada’s teens have got the message that drinking and driving is dangerous and irresponsible, but they’ve switched over to pot instead, said Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada.

“It’s a huge concern. The relative risk is high, but the kids don’t see it that way. They think they’re safer, they think of the old wives’ tale that if I’m stoned I’m driving slower.”

Research from Dalhousie University indicates teens who smoke pot and drive have similar crash rates to those who drink and drive, Murie said.

In Vancouver, when an officer stops someone who appears stoned, a police drug-recognition expert is summoned.

“They’ve got a battery of tests they administer that are court-recognized,” said Vancouver Const. Howard Chow.

The expert can then testify in court, supplying evidence of impairment.

Staff-Sgt. John Ward, of the RCMP’s media relations section, said impaired driving of any kind is taken very seriously by police.

“Normally when people think of impaired driving they think of impaired by alcohol, but it is a problem whether it’s prescription drugs, whether it’s crystal meth or whether it’s pot,” he said.
He said the prime evidence in an impaired driving case comes from the officer at the roadside.

“Toxicology of the contents of the blood only support the factual driving evidence that we get and also the normal testing that you would do,” said Ward.

“You’ve got to look at all those visible signs that would help you to determine if the person is impaired.”

Under proposed legislation introduced by the federal government last year, police would have more powers to test for drug impairment.

If a suspect fails roadside tests conducted by trained officers, police could proceed to saliva testing. Following that, police could demand blood or urine samples.

The proposed bill, along with a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, died because of the election call and must be reintroduced in Parliament to be considered.

The deaths of Simon Featherston and Dayton Unger, both 16, sparked calls for effective laws on stoned drivers.

The two died in a 2002 single-vehicle car crash in Langley, and the teen driver was acquitted of impaired driving even though tests showed he had a high level of pot’s active ingredient, THC, in his blood.

Judge William MacDonald noted that the Criminal Code doesn’t prohibit driving with THC in the blood.

Last month, the Canadian Public Health Association along with Health Canada launched a campaign called Pot and Driving to raise awareness among young people of the risk of pot-impaired driving.

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