Ontario to bring in stronger punishment for driving under influence of drugs

A demonstrator smokes a giant cannabis cigarette during a pro-marijuana legalization march in Brasilia May 23, 2014. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino (BRAZIL - Tags: SOCIETY CIVIL UNREST POLITICS DRUGS) (REUTERS)

Canada’s stance on the legal use of marijuana remains somewhat equivocal, with rules and their implementation varying on a case-by-case basis.

But while the legality of medicinal marijuana and the ongoing debate around recreational use of pot, and the hesitance of some law enforcement agencies to crack down on it, there has little argument about what users can and should do while under the influence – most notably, operating motor vehicles.

Driving under the influence of drugs is illegal across Canada, and several provinces have already laid out strict punishments for the action. Ontario will soon strengthen their own, when the government approves a new set of amendments for traffic laws in the province.

Bill 31, unambiguously called the Transportation Statue Law Amendment Act, was introduced before the previous provincial election and will soon return to Queen’s Park.

It has garnered attention in the past over the hard line it takes on distracted driving – the amendment will raise the fine and number of demerits associated with being caught while using your phone while behind the wheel.

But several other changes will take effect once the bill is approved. Notably, the punishment for driving under the influence of drugs will be matched to those already in place for intoxicated driving.

In Ontario, drivers have their licence immediately suspended upon being found with a blood alcohol concentration of over .05 milligrams (per 100 mililitres of blood), or upon refusing to be tested. Suspensions begin at three days for the first instance, and increasing to as long as 30 days for subsequent offences (with longer suspensions for those caught with a blood alcohol level higher than .08 milligrams).

Bill 31 will introduce the same suspensions for those caught driving under the influence of drugs, or a combination of drugs and alcohol. But the question remains, how is that determined?

Unlike alcohol, there is no process by which to immediately determine the level of THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana) in a driver’s system. Though perhaps someday there will be.

For now, however, the matter will be left up to the officer’s discretion.

The amendment in Bill 31 reads:

Where a police officer is satisfied that a person driving or having the care, charge or control of a motor vehicle or operating or having the care or control of a vessel meets the criteria set out in subsection (2), and where the officer reasonably believes, taking into account all of the circumstances, including the criteria set out in subsection (2), that the person’s ability to operate a motor vehicle or vessel is impaired by a drug or by a combination of a drug and alcohol, the officer shall request that the person surrender his or her driver’s licence.

Officers currently use standard field sobriety tests and drug recognition evaluations to determine whether the officer believes the driver is under the influence of drugs.

This standard is already in place in other parts of the country. In Manitoba, an officer can issue a physical coordination test. In B.C., the officer can further order a drug recognition evaluation by an expert, which can be used as evidence of drug use to pursue further charges.

But according to a recent study drugged driving may be on the rise, while the number of people caught and punished does not seem to be. The survey, released last year by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, showed that of Ontario drivers in Grades 10 to 12, four per cent drove after drinking while 9.7 per cent drove after smoking pot.

MADD Canada noted, however, that in 2012, just 1.9 per cent of the impairment charges laid in Canada were related to drug impairment.

"Drug-impaired driving has become a much larger part of the overall impaired driving in problem in Canada over the past several years," MADD Canada president Angeliki Souranis said recently. "But when we look at the impaired driving charges laid, just a small fraction are for drug-impairment."

Earlier this year, MADD Canada spoke out about the need for new drug-impaired driving detection measures beyond the standard field sobriety tests and evaluations currently used.

One concept it recently discussed with federal representatives is an oral fluid test currently being used in other countries. The federal Department of Justice and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation are currently considering the efficiency of several of these oral test options for potential use in Canada.

One made-in-Canada option might be the Cannabix Breathalyzer, a roadside test designed by a retired RCMP officer named Kal Malhi, which could someday give highway patrol officers a similar ability to measure impairment by marijuana as they currently have for alcohol.

Other countries, such as Norway and Australia, have their own oral tests in use, which requires suspects to submit to an oral swab or lick a test stick for examination.

As the acceptability of marijuana in Canadian society remains murky, it is important that the punishments surrounding its inappropriate use do not. Kudos to Ontario for establishing stronger suspension standards for those caught driving under the influence of drugs. But more can still be done across the country to establish stronger and more certain detection methods.