After 10 years of fighting drunk drivers, Alexa’s Team asks: What about pot?

As marijuana legalization looms, police are worried that impaired driving fatalities could spike

Part two of a series on how the tragic death of young girl changed the culture of drinking and driving in B.C. Read part one.

Impaired driving deaths have been cut in half over the past decade in B.C.

The drastic drop follows the introduction of harsh new rules in 2010, after four-year-old Alexa Middelaer was killed just a few hundred metres from her home in Delta in May 2008.

A police officer is now able to immediately ban a drunk driver from getting behind the wheel for 90 days, as well as hand them a $500 fine. Before, police could only stop someone with a 24-hour ban.

A squad of officers, called Alexa’s Team, has spent the past 10 years cracking down on drunk driving, bringing the 102 related deaths in 2008 down to 53 in 2016 (the latest year that numbers are available).

Officers join Alexa’s Team at an annual ceremoney. (Tracy Holmes/Peace Arch News)

Now, with the legalization of marijuana looming in Canada, officers who are part of Alexa’s Team are faced with a new set of challenges: How to investigate, charge and convict someone for drug-impaired driving.

Chief among the challenges is how to determine impairment, especially in a way that will hold up in court.

Sgt. Pat Davies leans forward onto a boardroom table in the Langley office of the province’s traffic division. He and the other 2,400 members of Alexa’s Team worry about how many lives could be lost before society understands how deadly drug-impaired driving is.

“We’re basically where we were societally, in the 1940s or the 1950s, with regards to liquor, now with regard to drugs,” says Davies.

“There’s no unanimity in the medical community in terms of what constitutes impairment and we don’t have any reliable instruments that will tell us ‘This person is impaired.’”

B.C. has proposed a 90-day driving ban for anyone caught high while driving. But there is currently no federally approved breathalyzer or saliva tests that police can use to conduct a roadside test. The federal marijuana legalization bill, though, would give police the power to demand blood and saliva samples.

Several companies, including Vancouver-based Cannabix Technologies, are in the process of developing one, but neither the finished product, nor approval for Ottawa, will come in time for legalization this summer.

“It takes years to develop,” Davies says. “It has to go through testing and once a particular instrument is chosen, it has to be put into legislation and then down the road we’ve got to arrange training…

“It’s an impossible calendar.”

Police view immediate 90-day administrative roadside prohibitions as key to keeping impaired drivers off the road. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)

Instead, police will have to use physical signs to try to determine if a driver is high. But there isn’t a foolproof method to do that.

“So few police officers are trained as drug recognition experts to do field sobriety testing, to do drug recognition testing, that the capacity to deal with hit isn’t there,” says retired RCMP Insp. Ted Emanuels, who helped launch Alexa’s Team.

Despite calls for a delay from senators, Indigenous leaders and others, the Trudeau government has remained steadfast in its plan to legalize recreational marijuana by the summer.

Emanuels said U.S. states have defined limits for the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, the high-inducing chemical in marijuana, in a driver’s blood system.

In Colorado, where pot has been legal since 2012, the limit is five nanograms of THC.

State law allows police there to arrest anyone based on “observed impairment,” no matter the level of THC in their blood. The state does not have any breathalyzer-style technology to test for THC, instead relying on blood tests.

West Vancouver Police Sgt. Brock Harrington, who is on Alexa’s Team, believes bringing in, and enforcing, a similar limit in B.C. would have challenges.

“Can I be the side of the road and ask for somebody’s urine? How do you physically get the evidence?” Harrington says.

Testing blood or urine is currently the only way to test for THC, and could violate privacy laws.

“I don’t think the public understands how impairing marijuana is. It’s not your alcoholic stumbling drunk obnoxious,” Emanuels says.

“Alexa brought the awareness to the policing community over alcohol-impaired driving. It was the tipping point. We knew what we had [in that] and it allowed us to move forward and be successful.”


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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