MADD Canada report says law to tackle drug-impaired driving is not working

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Canadian cops have had new weapons to tackle drug-impaired driving since 2008 but a report done for MADD Canada suggests it's not very effective in getting stoners off the streets.

The study by two law professors from Western University in London, Ont., said drugged-driving is more prevalent than alcohol-impaired driving among young people.

A change to the Criminal Code of Canada in 2008 authorized police to "physical co-ordination tests" and a drug-related evaluation for suspected drug-impaired drivers in certain circumstances, the report says. But the researchers suggest it's not having much impact because the law is "grossly under-enforced."

"While long overdue, the current enforcement approach is cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming," says the report authored by the researchers, Robert Solomon and Erika Chamberlain.

"The perception among young people that they can drive after drug use with relative impunity is all too accurate. Enforcement statistics indicate that both the federal and provincial governments need to restructure their approach to drug-impaired driving."

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The law, they say, has generated relatively few charges and Statistics Canada does not provide data for drug-related driving convictions, which makes it impossible to gauge the percentage of charges that result in conviction.

"Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that drug-impaired driving prosecutions may become unduly complicated, time-consuming, expensive, and vulnerable to successful challenges," the report says.

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Of all the provinces and territories, only British Columbia imposes a significant number of drug-impaired administrative licence suspensions — 4,457 last year. Of the jurisdictions that kept statistics, the next largest number came from Saskatchewan, with 61, according to the report.

The report recommends for Canada to move away from field-sobriety tests and drug-related evaluation tests and instead implement random roadside saliva testing, coupled with sophisticated testing tied to set drug limits similar to the .08 blood-alcohol level.

"This would bring Canada's law more into line with that of most comparable countries and the world leaders in traffic safety," the report says.

StatsCan should also change its reporting protocols to include drug-impaired driving cases that come to court, including convictions and sentences. A licence-suspension program similar to those covering drunk driving should also be developed, says the report.

A spokeswoman for federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told Postmedia News the government looks forward to reviewing the report and monitoring developments.

"Our Conservative Government takes impaired driving very seriously," said Juli Di Mambro.

"This is why we took action to protect the lives of innocent Canadians from those who drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol. We increased the penalties for impaired driving while giving police better tools to detect and investigate drug- and alcohol-impaired driving."

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The MADD Canada report showed only a handful of police in various provinces and territories are trained in detecting drug-driving impairment. Postmedia News said senior RCMP officials plan to increase training in the coming year and consider the effort against drug-impared driving a success.

Even is those cases that do get to court sometimes result in acquittal despite the evidence.

The report noted a recent case where a judge in Saskatchewan let off a driver who had failed a number of physical co-ordination tests and whose urine revealed marijuana in her system. The judge reportedly was not convinced she was really impaired.

"This case and others that adopt a similar approach do not augur well for drug-impaired driving prosecutions," the MADD report says, Postmedia noted.

The Mountie in charge of compliance and policy with RCMP national criminal operations played down such cases and told Postmedia the existing legislation gives police a "viable tool" to go after drug-impaired drivers.

"We don't have any reason to be alarmed at this juncture," said Insp. Tyler Bates. "We do have a lot of favourable outcomes that are demonstrating there's an expanding understanding and knowledge base within the judicial system."