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420 celebration at the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Space Hog Graphics)

Police will rely on older tests to check drivers for cannabis

Local police will rely on existing methods to assess cannabis impairment since they say no adequate alternatives are yet available

By Bogdan Volodin , in City , on October 29, 2018

Local police will rely on existing methods to assess cannabis impairment since they say no adequate alternatives are yet available to help in Canada’s post-legalization era.

Several local police departments are insisting that the current methods — a standard field sobriety test and drug-recognition experts — will remain the primary tools for their operations.

“We are committed to road safety and will continue to use standard field sobriety tests and drug recognition experts to investigate impaired driving in the City of Vancouver,” stated Sgt. Jason Robillard of the Vancouver police department.

Some experts have questioned the adequacy of these methods.

The federal government introduced several amendments to impaired-driver legislation in June 2018, under Bill C-46. It authorized the use of new technologies such as the Draeger 5000.

This device can be used to test saliva for THC presence, the ingredient that is the main cause of impairment from marijuana. The bill also allows police officers to demand a blood test without a warrant.

The Draeger 5000 has been criticized for its inability to measure actual THC content in the body and for its tendency to fail under cold-weather conditions below freezing.

Police response to the legislation

Sgt. Jason Robillard of the Vancouver police department talking to the media in Vancouver. (Ross Harvey)

Some local jurisdictions aren’t planning to implement the new technology.

“It’s just not going to fit our needs here is Vancouver,” said Robillard, confident that current methods will suffice.

Other police departments in the region agree.

“We will continue to apply standard field sobriety tests and drug-recognition experts primarily because they have been tested and upheld in courts as valid methods to test impaired driving,” stated Cst. Jeff Palmer from the West Vancouver police department.

Expert skepticism about current police methods

The standard field sobriety test is a series of physical tests, where drivers are asked to walk in a straight line or their pupil reaction is observed.

Drug-recognition experts perform more in-depth tests that help determine which substance is the likely cause of impairment.

The current methods are questionable, according to some public experts.

These tests cannot accurately measure THC content without a blood test, which takes time. That can dramatically change measurements of the drug’s presence in the body.

It also doesn’t help that cannabis affects people differently and impairment will vary among individuals despite similar content of THC.

Aside from the bodily fluid tests, the methods can be subjective since they are physical-response-based tests performed by a person.

Some public figures, including MADD chief executive Andrew Murie, are concerned that police need more tools to prevent cannabis-impaired drivers from driving under the influence.

James Wigmore, a Canadian forensic toxicologist and legal expert, questioned why the police aren’t using the Draeger 5000.

“The two-drug (cannabis and cocaine) saliva test has met the forensic science community standards and is a good test and should be used for screening more extensively,” he said. “I think some police are hesitant because it’s new technology and they’re always hesitant for that.”

The police say the future of roadside drug testing remains uncertain, but they continue to explore new methods to accurately determine impairment levels.