On high alert over driving laws: Alberta police face challenges ahead of marijuana legalization

by Claire Theobald

While recreational marijuana use is on the brink of being legalized in Canada, "driving while high isn't", said a Colorado state trooper speaking to local law enforcement about how to curb drivers impaired by drugs.

"You are legalizing the consumption of marijuana, you are not legalizing driving impaired," said Lt. Col. Kevin Eldridge of Colorado State Patrol, after delivering a seminar to local law enforcement at the eighth International Conference on Urban Traffic Safety at the Shaw Conference Centre last Monday.

Recreational use of marijuana was legalized in Colorado in 2012, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to do the same for Canadians as early as 2017.

Unlike alcohol where there are set legal limits for impairment, those standards don't exist for marijuana, and a lack of research on the subject has left law enforcement playing catch up as attitudes toward marijuana shift.

"We think it is very important to build some information and work with our partners because that tool is not available for our officers," Eldridge said.

Since marijuana was legalized, Colorado traffic police have been collecting data and conducting a pilot study of five devices that could potentially be used to measure the amount of marijuana in a person's system, much like breathalyzers do for alcohol consumption.

Colorado law currently sets a limit of five nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - the chemical that makes marijuana users feel high - in a person's blood. Anyone driving while over the limit, currently confirmed using a blood test, could be charged with driving under the influence.

That being said, as THC affects users differently and how marijuana use changes a person's driving ability is not well understood, these regulations serve only as a guideline. The real determination of whether a person is too impaired to drive is based on an officer's observations.

Insp. Gibson Glavin, a spokesman for Alberta RCMP K Division, said Canadian officers are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of impairment, with some taking additional Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) training to better recognize when a driver is under the influence of a substance other than alcohol.

"Because there is no specific technology or even a charge in Canada for being impaired by drug over any type of particular limit, they have to rely just on the behaviour and actions of the person," Glavin said.

Scott Pattison, a spokesman for the Edmonton Police Service, said city police are planning to increase the number of officers who receive DRE training to prepare officers to better recognize drug impairment, including marijuana, ahead of legalization.

Edmonton police currently look for the odour of marijuana on a person, redness in the eyes, laziness or sluggish movements, slow reaction times, an inability to multitask and pupil dilation as signs of impairment by marijuana.

But while officers know people are already driving high, the actual numbers in Alberta - and similarly Colorado - are unknown, as is whether legalization will increase those rates, because statistics on driving under the influence have not been divided by drug type.

While Edmonton police made 1,573 impaired driving arrests in 2015 - down from 1,780 in 2014 and 1,874 in 2013 - there is no differentiation between drivers charged for being impaired by drugs, alcohol or both.

Across Alberta in 2015, RCMP officers issued 6,737 charges for driving under the influence, compared to 7,140 in 2014 and 7,091 in 2013, but don't track how many of those charges are related to drugs.

Colorado troopers have started collecting more detailed statistics regarding what type of impairment a person is suspected of - though a thorough report on the subject will not be available until 2018 - and Eldridge recommends Canadian law enforcement do the same ahead of legalization.

Also not well understood is the effect of using marijuana on a driver's ability to safely control a motor vehicle, or how combining marijuana with other drugs or alcohol could affect a person's level of impairment.

While official data on the subject could be years away, Eldridge said state patrol officers have made some startling observations, including the fact that the No. 1 charge against drivers caught with marijuana on board is speeding, "which is the opposite of what we were expecting."

The RCMP is currently conducting research of its own in conjunction with the Ontario ministry of transportation and the Canadian Society of Forensic Science drugs and driving committee, examining three roadside tests designed to measure drugs in a driver's system.

Glavin said police will rely on clear direction from legislators to determine how they will enforce laws against driving under the influence of marijuana.

Until more information and clearer legislation is available, Eldridge said collecting data, training officers and educating the public will be critical.