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Stiffer penalties for driving while drug impaired take effect October 2

As of Sunday, October 2, new penalties will be imposed on drug-impaired drivers in Ontario. These are the new penalties for driving under the influence of drugs:

  • A $180 penalty
  • An immediate licence suspension of three days for the first occurrence, seven days for the second occurrence and thirty days for the third and subsequent occurrences upon failure of a roadside sobriety test
  • A possible ninety-day licence suspension and a seven-day vehicle impoundment following further testing by a drug recognition expert at a police station
  • Mandatory education or treatment programs, and installation of an ignition interlock device in their vehicle, for drivers with two or more licence suspensions involving alcohol or drugs within a ten-year period.

There could also be criminal charges associated with impaired driving, which could result in the loss of the driver’s licence, additional fines, and jail time. The Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, warned that driving impaired is never okay and not worth the risk. “If you’re not sober, don’t get behind the wheel.”

Whether it’s drugs or alcohol, impaired driving is never okay. Not only do you face tough penalties, but you risk your life and endanger everyone around you. It’s not worth the risk. If you’re not sober, don’t get behind the wheel.

These changes to the law make the penalties associated with driving while drug impaired more similar to those associated with driving while alcohol impaired. A crucial difference between the two conditions, from an enforcement perspective, is that there is currently no widely accepted roadside testing technology for determining drug impairment that is comparable to the breathalyzer. There are a number of saliva-based roadside devices that can detect drugs such as marijuana, but none has been approved for the use of Ontario police as of yet.

Instead, Ontario police will continue to rely on the Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) and a Drug Recognition Expert’s (DRE) evaluation, a multi-phase process that lacks simplicity and has several other limitations.

It begins, theoretically at least, with a police officer observing that a driver’s pattern of driving appears “erratic” or a “departure from the norm.” The officer pulls the driver over and then observes him or her, watching for the classic signs of impairment: slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, coordination difficulties while producing a driver’s licence, and so on.

Standard Field Sobriety Test being used on suspected impaired driver.

At this point the officer may ask the driver to perform standardized field sobriety tests such as walk-and-turn, one-leg stand, and horizontal gaze nystagmus, i.e., an observation of how a person’s pupil follows a moving object. If the driver appears to be impaired as a result of his performance of these tests, it must then be determined whether the impairment is the result of alcohol, or drugs, or both. A breathalyzer test can be given at this point. If that shows negative, saliva or sweat screens may be used in jurisdictions where they have been approved. If the officer has “reasonable” grounds to believe the driver is impaired by a drug, the officer can take the suspect to the station for DRE evaluation.

The DRE investigation involves an examination of the eye to measure pupil size, vertical and horizontal movement of the eyes, and convergences of the eyes. A dark room examination, in which the suspect is observed as a flashlight is shone in his eyes from different directions is also conducted, along with further sobriety tests (balance, coordination, finger to nose, etc). The suspect’s vital signs will also be checked, along with muscle tone and evidence of injection sites. The suspect will also be interviewed in order to obtain either an admission of drug use or other useful information. The DRE investigation can take approximately forty-five minutes.

The horizontal gaze nystagmus test for drug and alcohol impairment.

The final phase of the investigation requires toxicological examination of the suspect’s blood or urine. This analysis will detect traces of any drug that has been ingested, though it is not done for the purpose of determining precisely when the drug was ingested or when impairment would have occurred.

One of the limitations of this system, particularly the toxicology, is that the presence of traces of a drug like cannabis in a person’s urine or blood does not necessarily indicate impairment. The drug may have been ingested up to three days previously. This means essentially that an arrest for impairment will depend on the observations of the police officer.

One group that is very keen for police to have better tools available to them to catch drug-impaired drivers is MADD Canada. This group would like to see roadside saliva tests made standard in Canada before the federal government legalizes marijuana use. Oral fluid technology is used “extensively” in Europe and elsewhere, according to MADD, and one tongue swab test can detect seven groups of illicit drugs including cannabis, opiates and cocaine.

Meanwhile, in Toronto more people are driving while drug impaired than did so last year, according to police. Or at least more are being charged. Marijuana is still a commonly seen impairment drug, but police say it’s more common now to see more than one drug in the person’s system, a combination of narcotics and depressants for example. MADD president Andrew Murie said in the Toronto Sun last summer that drivers killed in traffic accidents are 40 per cent more likely to have drugs in their systems than alcohol.

One fact that some may not realize is that even if you use cannabis for medicinal purposes, if its use impairs your ability to drive, it is illegal to drive while using it. Ontario does not yet have a standard impairment level for THC in the blood, the active chemical in marijuana. Colorado, where marijuana use is legal, has set five nanograms of active THC in the blood as the level beyond which a person can be prosecuted for driving under the influence.

Auberge on the Park-Tridel


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