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‘We’re just not ready’: MADD regional manager says there’s more work to be done to prepare for legalization of recreational pot in Nova Scotia

This photo was taken at MADD Annapolis Valley’s 2016 Project Red Ribbon check point in Kentville. MADD regional manager for the Atlantic Provinces Susan MacAskill, left, says we’re ill prepared from a law enforcement perspective for the potential increase in drug impaired driving that could result from the legalization of recreational cannabis.
This photo was taken at MADD Annapolis Valley’s 2016 Project Red Ribbon check point in Kentville. MADD regional manager for the Atlantic Provinces Susan MacAskill, left, says we’re ill prepared from a law enforcement perspective for the potential increase in drug impaired driving that could result from the legalization of recreational cannabis. - FILE

KENTVILLE, NS - Susan MacAskill doesn’t think Canada is ready for legalizing recreational cannabis.

Ready or not, though, it’s coming. The recreational use of marijuana is expected to be legalized across Canada later this year.

MacAskill, MADD Canada’s regional manager for the Atlantic provinces, worries about people who will use marijuana before getting behind the wheel of the car.

MADD supports those who have been injured or who have had family members killed in impaired driving crashes, and MacAskill wants to see those numbers going down. In Canada, on average, approximately four people are killed each day in road crashes involving alcohol and-or drugs.

MADD Canada regional manager for the Atlantic Provinces Susan MacAskill.
MADD Canada regional manager for the Atlantic Provinces Susan MacAskill.

“No one should be losing a loved one or be injured because of drug impairment on our highways,” MacAskill said. “Those incidents are 100 per cent preventable.”

MADD Canada is recommending every province align legislation for alcohol impairment with legislation for drug impairment so penalties are the same. MADD began working a number of years ago to have Motor Vehicle Acts in each province amended, recognizing that drivers could be impaired by alcohol or drugs.

In 2008, police were authorized under the Criminal Code to conduct drug testing under certain circumstances. Since then, MADD Canada has been working with legislators to impress on them the need to have as many officers trained to conduct roadside drug tests as possible to help ensure highways are safe.

“Right now, we know that a breathalyser that police use at roadside will identify the presence of alcohol in a driver’s system if they have been consuming but it will not detect drugs, so there needs to be technology used that will detect drug impaired driving,” MacAskill said.

MADD Canada has been advocating the federal government for several years for roadside saliva testing for drugs. A federal task force on impaired driving conducted seven pilot projects in various jurisdictions, including Halifax. In co-operation with the RCMP, Halifax Regional Police conducted roadside drug testing from mid-December to the end of March.

Data was compiled and sent to the federal task force. As a result, the RCMP is recommending saliva testing to identify drug impaired drivers and for all officers to be trained to use the saliva test swipe at roadside.

Drug recognition experts

MacAskill said the only police currently trained and certified to detect drugs are referred to as ‘drug recognition experts’. There are approximately 600 across Canada, with about 60 in Nova Scotia.

These drug expert officers have completed three weeks of training in Florida or Arizona to become certified. There’s a steep cost — $17,000 to train each officer — and MacAskill says it isn’t financially feasible to train all police officers in Canada at this price.

Currently, when a drug impaired driver is suspected, a drug recognition expert has to be involved in the process in order for the charge to stand up in court.

“We just don’t have the resources to enforce the drug impaired issue,” she says.

She believes it’s likely that the frequency of people driving while high on cannabis will increase with the legalization of pot. If all police are trained and enabled to conduct roadside drug testing, individuals are less likely to take a chance and presume they won’t get caught.

Federal Bill C-46, which has yet to be adopted into law, would permit a breath or saliva test to be administered by police to every driver that goes through a sobriety check point.

“This takes less than two minutes and it ensures that police are able to be more thorough in checking every driver instead of those that they suspect because they see evidence of something or they smell evidence of something,” MacAskill said.

Similar laws are in place in other industrialized countries and have proven to reduce the loss of life or injury on roadways by between 19 and 35 per cent.

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Nova Scotia legislation

MacAskill says MADD is pleased with the recently-announced legislative framework for Nova Scotia. It’s more stringent than what has been proposed in other provinces.

“The challenge now is for police to be trained. We know that that July 1 deadline is probably not going to be the legalization date now, all indications are that there is going to be a bit of a delay with that,” she said. “It’s April and, as a country, we’re just not ready.”

MacAskill said there is a need for more education surrounding legalization. Of the fatalities that have been reported by Transport Canada since 2014, there is a presence of drugs, alcohol or both in more than 50 per cent of those killed on our roadways.

“As a nation, we have to be doing whatever we can to protect innocent people and this is a very complex issue,” MacAskill said.

She said MADD reminds everyone to call 911 to report suspected impaired drivers. She said this is the most effective program for engaging the public in road safety. Police can respond and potentially get an unsafe driver off the road. MacAskill said the program now accounts for more than 50 per cent of impaired drivers apprehended in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

The Cannabis Control Act enacts new legislation and amends seven pieces of existing legislation, including the Motor Vehicle Act. The proposed framework is subject to approval by the House of Assembly. Many provincial laws will not come into effect until federal legislation is proclaimed.

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