OTTAWA — Around 10 p.m. on Thursday night, a driver pulled up to a police checkstop in an eastern Ottawa suburb with his high-beam headlights still turned on.
It’s the kind of blunder that immediately tells a police officer something might not be quite right with the driver.
When the driver rolled down his window, RCMP Cst. Denis Milette caught the distinctive scent of marijuana smoke. That was all the evidence he needed to demand a roadside sobriety test.
Milette was paired up with the Ottawa Police Service that night because he’s one of the roughly 830 police officers in Canada trained as a drug recognition expert. If a driver is arrested on suspicion of impaired driving, Milette can conduct a 12-step examination that can form the basis for criminal charges.
But first Milette had to see if there were reasonable grounds for arrest, and that’s where the roadside test comes in.
A Standardized Field Sobriety Test involves three things: tracking an object with your eye, walking heel-to-toe along a straight line, and standing on one leg. In this case, the driver successfully passed the test.
Had these been equipped with an oral fluid screening device, they also could have swabbed the driver’s saliva and had it analyzed for recent drug use — a new power Canadian police gained in June with the passage of Bill C-46.
But so far only one model of the device has been approved for use in Canada, and many police forces — including the Ottawa Police — have greeted it skeptically, expressing concerns about its cost, its bulkiness, and its reliability in cold weather. They’re waiting for the government to approve more models before buying the gear.
So on this night, there was no saliva test device to use. The driver was sent on his way.
“He did pass, but I think it was a wake-up call for him that he was right on the bubble,” said Ottawa Police Sgt. Mark Gatien, who was supervising the checkstop that night.
Gatien said these checkstops will be run every day in Ottawa over the next week as an initial blitz following the legalization of recreational cannabis.
Twice next week, the checkstops will also feature an unusual set-up: they’ll be run in the morning, as opposed to the alcohol-focused programs that are run at night. In other words, police are well aware of the concept of “wake and bake,” and will be scheduling their checkstops accordingly.
“This will be a 24/7 thing,” Gatien said. “What you usually see us do at nighttime, we’re going to be doing at any time of day or night now.”
Most experts are predicting a rise in drug-impaired driving following the legalization of cannabis, though there is conflicting data and it’s difficult to be conclusive about causation. For example, the number of drug-impaired driving cases is certain to rise simply because police will be pouring more resources into detecting it.
But there is evidence Canada’s roads could become more dangerous, at least in the short term. A study published this week by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a U.S. non-profit organization, found that crashes are up by as much as six per cent in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, compared with neighbouring states that haven’t legalized marijuana for recreational use.
The study’s authors cautioned there is still not enough research to draw hard conclusions. “Marijuana’s role in crashes isn’t as clear as the link between alcohol and crashes,” the news release said. “Many states don’t include consistent information on driver drug use in crash reports, and policies and procedures for drug testing are inconsistent.”
What you usually see us do at nighttime, we’re going to be doing at any time of day or night now
Canadian officials say they’re trying to mitigate the problem here based on studying the examples in the United States.
“One of the things that we did learn from jurisdictions in the States was that we needed to go out with public education and awareness early,” said a Health Canada official at a briefing on Oct. 5. “Unlike those jurisdictions who waited until after they had some funds in place from cannabis to do their awareness campaigns, we went out as of last November with a very aggressive drug-impaired driving campaign.”
Along with advertising campaigns, the police checkstop blitzes will be another key method of raising public awareness. As the Ottawa Police pointed out on Thursday night, even if a driver isn’t arrested, a close call may be enough to stop them from driving stoned in the future.
“It’s a good thing that he passed, we’re glad he did, but it’s a lesson learned, and I think that might change his attitude a little bit,” Gatien said. “You know, ‘Maybe I’ll smoke it at home rather than in the car.’ That’s what we want to do.”
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