New Brunswick, Nova Scotia unprepared for marijuana-impaired cases: MADD

Province tight-lipped on how legal pot might be taxed

The head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the Atlantic region is calling on New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to get a legislative framework in place for identifying and cracking down on motorists impaired by marijuana.

"Those incidents can have just as deadly an outcome because impaired by drugs, or impaired by alcohol, you're impaired," said Susan MacAskill.

The federal government is expected to legalize recreational marijuana use this spring. With increased availability, MacAskill expects to see an increase in use, an increase in impaired driving, and an increase in injuries and fatalities.

Studies indicate more than half of impaired driving cases already involve drugs alone, or a combination of drugs and alcohol, she said.

Other provinces, such as P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador have legislative frameworks ready to be introduced once they know how federal legalization will work, she said.

But New Brunswick and Nova Scotia do not.

"They've said it's a serious problem and they're concerned, but they've not taken the steps to build in a legislative framework to protect citizens … against drug-impaired drivers, so it's a serious problem."

The New Brunswick government does have a working group comprised of senior officials from Health, Finance, and Justice and Public Safety, New Brunswick Liquor Corporation and Opportunities NB that's expected to make recommendations concerning the legalization of marijuana by September.

Drug-impaired driving is one of the "number of challenges" associated with legalization the group is examining, Justice and Public Safety spokesperson Paul Bradley said in an email to CBC News.

"The fact is, impaired driving — whether by the influence of alcohol or drugs — is illegal is New Brunswick. That's why we are working to implement, by the end of this spring, tougher measures to deter impaired driving," such as a 24-hour roadside suspension for "driver unfitness," which would be at the discretion of a police officer, he said.

'Still much work to be done'

The 24-hour suspension was one of several amendments to the provincial Motor Vehicle Act passed one year ago to strengthen the ability to identify and deter alcohol-impaired driving. Others included creating a vehicle impoundment program and mandatory ignition interlock devices for anyone convicted of impaired driving.

The government had hoped to have the planned changes implemented by early 2017, but they are "comprehensive and complex," said Bradley.

"There is still much work to be done between now and when legalization becomes a reality," he said.

MacAskill said New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have had plenty of warning. The federal Liberals have been in government for nearly a year and a half now and made their intentions for legalization clear during the election campaign, she said.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has also been pushing for drug-impaired legislation in every province and territory for years, said MacAskill, noting the organization started gathering statistics on the influence of drugs and the impact on highway safety in 2000.

"There needs to be a framework in place and police need to be trained and there needs to be technology and courts need to uphold drug impaired driving legislation so there's deterrence," she said.

'Drugalyzers' being tested

Roadside drug screening devices are currently being tested in some jurisdictions, such as Halifax, as part of a national pilot project by Public Safety Canada.

The so-called drugalyzers are designed to test whether suspected impaired drivers are high from marijuana, or other drugs, such as ecstasy (MDMA), opioids, methamphetamine, and cocaine.

Unlike breathalyzers, which require a breath sample to determine alcohol impairment, drugalyzers collect and analyze saliva.

They do not measure the actual level of impairment, but indicate whether there's a presence of drugs in the driver's system with either a positive or negative reading.

If the devices become legal for use in Canada, a positive reading would result in a driver being sent to a drug recognition officer for assessment of impairment.

"We're asking provinces to introduce a piece parallel to their alcohol impaired driving measures in the Motor Vehicle Acts so that when drug-impaired drivers are processed, those charges aren't going to get thrown out because the police haven't done a drug test, or the courts don't understand what drug testing is, or Crowns and defences," said MacAskill.

The New Brunswick government's working group will continue to consult with stakeholders, including law enforcement, on how to best address the challenges of legalization, said Bradley.

"Likewise, the Department of Justice and Public Safety will also continue to work with stakeholders, including MADD, law enforcement and federal partners, to develop best practices and strengthen legislation respecting impaired driving," he said.