'We're all very worried': Sask. police chiefs wait for answers about impaired driving and marijuana

'We're all very worried': Sask. police chiefs wait for answers about impaired driving and marijuana

The Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police is pushing for more tools and research to prepare for the legalization of marijuana in 2018.

"We're all very worried about it,"  said association president and Weyburn Police Chief Marlo Pritchard. "In Saskatchewan, we are already number one with use of alcohol — impaired driving.

"And now we are adding another intoxicant."

The Liberal government said last week it would announce legislation to legalize marijuana in Canada by July 1, 2018.

It will be up to the provinces to decide how marijuana is distributed and sold, a decision that has drawn criticism from Premier Brad Wall, who also raised public safety concerns about drug-impaired driving.

North Battleford test results yet to be released

In December, the North Battleford RCMP detachment started testing two types of devices to screen a driver's saliva for cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine or opioids.

It was one of a handful of RCMP jurisdictions that tested the devices as part of a federal program led by the Ministry of Public Safety. 

The ministry said the results of the pilot project will be drafted in the coming weeks before being released to the public.

"The final report will provide greater details on how the devices work in the context of Canadian climate and law enforcement practices, and will also provide information to inform the standard operating procedures and training provisions for device use," the ministry said in an emailed statement.

Saliva testing would need legislative change

According to Pritchard, the association of chiefs of police is also currently in the dark about the test's results.

He worries that tools such as saliva testing will require legislative changes before they can be used as an enforcement tool.

"We'll wait and see what the legislation looks like, but there's a number of Criminal Code amendments that need to, or at least I believe, need to be made to give us the powers to detect and combat that," he said.

Saskatchewan police services currently have dedicated officers trained as "drug recognition experts" who can identify drug impairment at the roadside. 

More tools needed: Regina chief

Regina Police Chief Evan Bray said it's a "specialized field", and the only way that police can bring a drug-impaired driving case to the courts.

He wants to see any strategy focus on three areas: tools and training to deal with drug-impaired driving, an education strategy for young people and the regulation of sales and distribution.

"Those types of [saliva-screening] devices have not yet been approved on a national level, so we rely on basically our frontline officers being experts on detecting whether or not someone is displaying signs of whether they've used drugs before they got behind the wheel of the vehicle," said Bray.

"We need some real, good evidentiary-based tools and training for our officers so we can keep our streets and roadways safe."

Bray said the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has asked the federal government for more information about how the change could impact drug-impaired driving frequency and enforcement.

Considering 'lessons learned' in other countries

Although Bray said police did not yet have answers to those questions, he is confident those strategies will be developed.

In the meantime, Saskatchewan police have been looking for answers from other countries where marijuana has already been legalized.

Bray said that will help to identify potential problems with drug-impaired driving and regulation.

"Those types of things are lessons learned from other jurisdictions and things that we in the policing community see that we need to get a handle on prior to this being legalized, so that we hit the ground running and we know what the rules are and what they aren't," he said.