Yukon RCMP Superintendent Brian Jones (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

CANNABIS SPECIAL: Yukon RCMP, Crown prepare for uptick in cannabis-impaired driving cases

Police supt. says “individual choice and individual decision making is still going to be required”

Members of the Yukon RCMP as well as a Crown attorney both say that they have one key prediction on the effects of cannabis legalization — that incidents of drug-impaired driving will increase.

In an interview Oct. 15, Yukon RCMP Staff Sgt. Jane Boissonneault and Supt. Brian Jones said members have been “gearing up” for legalization for “awhile,” with officers taking a multi-hour online training course on the new Cannabis Act as well as both online and in-person training on drug-impaired driving.

“Primarily the focus, currently, has been drug-impaired driving, just because the investigation of an impaired driving incident when the person is impaired by drugs as opposed to alcohol is different, so … it will be taking some adjustment for our members,” Boissonneault explained.

“I think right now, all the focus has been on drug-impaired driving because we know the consequences,” Jones added. “We have years and years of experience with alcohol and I’d hate to see tragedies result from drug-impaired driving that are as preventable as they are with alcohol-impaired incidents… but it’s a part of the larger conversation around how we’re going to respond to the change in legislation, both as a police agency and as the public.”

Mirroring their counterparts across the country, Boissonneault said that Yukon RCMP have been focusing on getting more members trained in administering standard field sobriety testing and drug recognition expert evaluations.

The former typically takes place roadside, where, according to the RCMP website, an officer will examine a suspected impaired driver’s eyes and ask the driver to complete a walk-and-turn and stand-on-one-leg test. The latter sees accredited officers administer the standard field sobriety test as well as “divided attention” tests, including walking in a straight line heel-to-toe, checking physical signs like blood pressure, pupil size and muscle tone and taking a urine, saliva or blood sample for toxicological testing.

Nationally, law enforcement officers will also be able to use a federally-approved and somewhat controversial roadside testing device called the Draeger DrugTest 5000, which can detect levels of THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, in saliva. (Yukon RCMP could not confirm before press time whether any have been purchased yet.)

Jones said force is “aggressively filling spots” for training.

“We don’t have every officer trained that we want, but we’re going to be able to respond to calls for service and be able to detect impaired driving … it’s not going to be a free-for-all, and some of that rests with the public and the choices they make around consumption and drug-impaired driving,” he said.

Yukon RCMP did not provide the number of officers that had taken any training before press time.

While impaired driving has always been against the law, Boissonneault said that the RCMP is anticipating an increase in cannabis-related incidents come Oct. 17 onwards.

“It’s just a case of, we think there may be more drug-impaired driving versus strictly alcohol-impaired driving, but that’s merely an assumption, we don’t know for sure, of course, because it hasn’t actually been implemented yet,” she said.

Boissonneault said she didn’t know of any specific plans at the moment to increase patrols or stop-checks to specifically monitor for cannabis-impaired driving, but hinted that, with the upcoming holiday season, “it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we’ll be running stop-checks.”

New laws may lead to more impaired-driving prosecutions, says Crown

Concentrated enforcement efforts by the RCMP combined with new tools may mean that on top of more people being stopped for impaired driving, more charges against suspected impaired drivers will make it to the prosecution stage, says a Yukon Crown attorney.

And with changes to the Criminal Code, it’s now be easier for investigators to gather evidence when they suspect someone is driving while impaired.

“The detection of drug-impaired driving up to now has been a little bit more difficult than alcohol-impaired driving because there were no investigative tools available to the RCMP similar to (breathalyzers),” Crown attorney Noel Sinclair explained in an interview Oct. 15.

“But now, regulations have been written around an oral fluid screening device that will detect the presence of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, and that tool will be available to the RCMP for roadside screening of drug impairment… So screening is going to go up.”

Along with approving the Draeger DrugTest 5000 earlier this year, the Canadian government also successfully introduced new provisions to the Criminal Code that specifically address impaired driving. They include laws laying out legal THC blood-concentration levels within two hours of driving and relaxing standards on when police officers can administer roadside oral fluid testing or take a blood sample.

Sinclair said it was “difficult to predict” how the coming into force of the Cannabis Act might affect other cannabis-related charges — trafficking, for example — but noted that the federal government’s belief is that legalizing cannabis will cut into the black market.

“Would you rather buy your alcohol from the back of someone’s truck selling moonshine or simply go to the liquor store and get something that you know is going to be safe and isn’t going to make you go blind?” he asked.

While possession of 30g or less of dried cannabis is no longer illegal, Sinclair said simple possession isn’t a charge the Crown’s office sees a high volume of anyway (according to data from Statistics Canada, 13 people were charged in the Yukon in 2017).

However, for the charges that do exist and are still working their way through the legal system, Sinclair said the Crown will examine whether to continue prosecution on a “case-by-case basis.”

“We would be looking at whether, in … the charges pre-existing the coming into force of the Cannabis Act, was the health or safety of others endangered? … Is the alleged conduct associated with the organized, systemic, illicit cultivation, production or harvesting of marijuana? If it was, that heightens the public interest in continue the prosecution,” he said.

On the flip side, for cases that lack aggravating features — for example, a person with no criminal record who was in possession of a small amount of cannabis — the Cannabis Act may mean that there is no longer a public interest in continuing prosecution, Sinclair said, in which case the charges would be stayed.

In general, incidents of cannabis possession reported to the police have been on the decline since 2013.

In her interview, Yukon RCMP Staff Sgt. Boissonneault said that while she doesn’t think the force has “changed our enforcement efforts at all,” in cases involving small amounts of cannabis over the last few months, “knowing that the change in legislation was coming, there may have been more discussion with Crown as to whether charges would be laid or not.”

Yukon RCMP superintendent stresses “individual responsibility”

Even with all the legal and policing framework in place, Yukon RCMP Supt. Jones stressed that, in the end, “individual choice and individual decision making is still going to be required” — how much cannabis someone consumes, when and where they consume it, and what they choose to do while they’re high.

“There’s a phrase that the Government of Canada is using (that’s) being supported by the Yukon government, ‘Start low and go slow.’ And I never thought in my 31 years of policing that I’d be saying that in reference to cannabis, but that’s the new normal,” he said.

“I think Wednesday’s going to be an interesting day.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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