RCMP on Prince Edward Island say a specialized unit made 52 impaired driving arrests last year. According to a news release, 43 of those drivers were impaired by drugs, eight were impaired by alcohol, and one was charged for failure to provide a sample.
"I think it speaks to having a dedicated unit that is focused on this and their efforts really do help to try and make safer roads for all Islanders," said Const. Gavin Moore, spokesperson for the provincial RCMP.
Moore is referring to the Provincial Priority Unit, or PPU, which was first created in 2020 to specifically target the issue of impaired driving on the Island.
"So this unit works in all corners of P.E.I. They also take care of patrols on boats in the summertime and are also an asset to be used in all kinds of other special events," he said.
"Certainly impaired driving, as all Islanders could attest, is a priority and something that we all want to see action taken on."
Enhanced drug-detecting tools, training
Within the past few years, access to drug-detecting tools and training has seen the proportion of drug-related charges rise, said Moore. This includes the drug screening device, drug recognition evaluator training and standard field sobriety testing training.
"Knowing that there are police out there on the roads with a specific skill set and a specific purpose certainly can reduce the number of impaired drivers," he said. "[I] would hope that it would make people understand that there is a very strong chance they will get caught if they make these risky decisions."
The success of the small unit has led to its expansion for 2023. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said the budget for the PPU was increased by approximately $300,000 in 2023.
The PPU also partners with MADD Canada. Steve Sullivan, the Ottawa-based CEO of MADD Canada, said the number of drug-impaired driving charges is concerning.
"I think in this day and age when we've had so much education and public awareness around impaired driving, the risks, the consequences for those people who do choose to," he said. "It's always concerning when we see these kinds of numbers."
Cannabis just as risky as alcohol
While Sullivan said many people are now aware of the risks of impaired driving due to alcohol, fewer people talk about the risks of driving after using cannabis.
"I can't tell you how many times I've spoken to people who said I'm a better driver when I'm high, which is just not true," he said. "We know that people who take cannabis and drive, their reactions are slower."
And those slower reactions can have effects that are just as detrimental as alcohol impairment.
"You're at risk for injuries to yourself or your passengers," Sullivan said. "And even if you're fortunate enough not to get into a crash, if you are stopped by the police you run the risk of getting your criminal record that could impact your job, your job in the future, your ability to travel outside of Canada, your insurance rate."
But while it may seem like cannabis-related impaired driving charges are on the rise, Sullivan said part of the reason is that more people are getting caught.
"I think with the legalization of cannabis we've seen more and more police services increase their training," he said. "The more you're looking for it, the more you're gonna find."
The high percentage of PPU arrests for impaired driving involving drugs contrasts with Charlottetown, where city police said in 2022, they charged 94 people with impaired driving — 72 for alcohol impairment, 14 for drug impairment and eight people who refused to provide a breath sample. But because of delays in samples, those numbers only account for arrests to about mid-year.
In Summerside, police said there were 19 people arrested in 2022 for being impaired by alcohol, and four charged for cannabis impairment, while 10 were charged with refusal to comply.
Const. Stephen Duggan is one of the officers with the PPU. He said there's a big focus on getting more officers across the province trained on drug recognition, within the RCMP and municipal detachments.
The training has become more common since 2018 when new impaired driving laws were introduced.
"It allowed for some changes in the law and then technologies advanced to the point now where roadside you can check for certain drugs outside of the alcohol," he said.
The test for cannabis in oral saliva is pretty simple. A driver is asked to swab their mouth. "And then nine minutes later, it comes out with the result either positive or negative"
From there, if positive, the officer will request a blood sample that will be sent to a national lab. It could take some time for lab confirmation, but Duggan said that's just part of the new technology getting up and running.
"At the end of the day it gets people off the road," he said. "That's what we want for public safety."