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Impaired-driving laws given makeover under pot legislation

It would be easier for police to make drivers blow into a breathalyzer to detect alcohol as well as test people for drugs under the federal government’s new legal-marijuana legislation.
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The government is using the occasion of legalizing pot to remake criminal provisions on drunk driving in response to pressure from parliamentarians, the provinces and public, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale acknowledged in an interview.

It would be easier for police to make drivers blow into a breathalyzer to detect alcohol as well as test people for drugs under the federal government’s new legal-marijuana legislation.

The government is using the occasion of legalizing pot to remake criminal provisions on drunk driving in response to pressure from parliamentarians, the provinces and public, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale acknowledged in an interview.

“One of the things you need to weigh in terms of the appropriateness of a provision like this is the absolute carnage that’s caused on our highways and the very severe loss of life, and injury, by impaired driving of all kinds,” Goodale said Thursday.

Proposed mandatory alcohol screening measures would allow police to demand a breath sample from any driver they lawfully stop — a lower bar than the current threshold of suspicion the person has been drinking.

The roadside test would not by itself lead to a charge, but would prompt further investigation including more elaborate testing at the police station.

Police would also be able to demand a saliva sample from a driver if they reasonably suspect the person has drugs in their body. Telltale signs could include the scent of marijuana, unusually red eyes or abnormal speech patterns.

Should the test lead police to believe an offence has been committed, they could order an examination by an evaluating officer or the taking of a blood sample.

The higher bar for a saliva test than for a breath sample stems from the fact “the science is different,” Goodale said. “With drugs, the oral test is an early part of the evidentiary chain, whereas in the case of a breathalyzer for alcohol it is more definitive evidence in itself.”

The legislation would toughen drug-impaired driving provisions in the Criminal Code and create three new offences for having specified levels of a drug in the blood within two hours of driving. The penalties would depend on the drug type and levels, or the combination of alcohol and drugs.

The bill would stiffen certain minimum fines and maximum penalties and restrict defences that make it harder to enforce laws.

Scott MacDonald, assistant director of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. and a professor in UVic’s school of health-information science, said a roadside marijuana test presents challenges.

“The problem is the technology hasn’t caught up, we’re not close to where we are with the breathalyzer for alcohol in terms of the studies,” MacDonald said.

Along with that, a threshold for impairment hasn’t been agreed upon, he said. “It’s hard for me to envision an improvement based on the technologies that are out there right now. There’s no agreement by the experts of what concentration level of THC constitutes using within two hours.”

He said another issue in choosing a threshold is that THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — can be stored in the fatty cells and blood of chronic users.

The federal government is awaiting the results of a study of saliva-based roadside devices tested by police across Canada. Goodale said the results “have been very encouraging,” even when the devices are used in extremely cold weather.

jwbell@timescolonist.com