Feds to toughen impaired driving rules under pot laws

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TORONTO, ON – The federal government has officially unveiled its plans to legalize recreational marijuana by July 2018, and promises as well to introduce some of the toughest impaired driving laws in the world – complete with roadside saliva tests.

Under the proposal, police would be able to demand oral fluid samples if they believe drivers have drugs in their body, and with reasonable grounds would be able to demand a blood sample.

Punishments for those found driving under the influence of drugs including cannabis will become more severe, said Ralph Goodale, minister of public safety, during a press briefing on Friday. There are also plans for a “wide-ranging” campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of driving while impaired.

Tests will focus on the presence of THC in the bloodstream within two hours of driving. Penalties will range from $1,000 fines for those that have 2-5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, and even jail time for multiple offenders found to have higher levels of the drug or a combination of 2.5 nanograms with 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. 

For now, existing laws remain in place, and many questions about testing regimes remain unanswered.

“There is a great deal of work ahead of us,” said Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, also stressing that lessons will be learned from earlier legalization in Colorado and Washington State.

The shift will undoubtedly make a difference in driver testing regimes, most of which have been targeted at operations that cross the Canada-U.S. border.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance is already exploring those issues as part of a coalition of about 20 employer associations and employers in safety-sensitive roles.

“We’re not getting involved in the issue of social policy,” says David Bradley, Chief Executive Officer of the alliance.  “Our concern first and foremost is with respect to public and workplace safety … we don’t really care what people are doing in their own personal time as long as they show up at work fit for duty.”

“We need to have a regulatory framework in Canada to be able to conduct workplace testing – including the old chestnut of random testing,” Bradley said.

In about two decades since the U.S. pulled Canadian carriers into testing requirements south of the border, there has been “no end” to legal challenges, human rights challenges and reviews, he adds. “We want clear rules, clear accountability, clear responsibility.”

Employers did win one recent challenge. Ontario Superior Court Judge Frank Marrocco ruled that the Toronto Transit Commission should be able to conduct random drug and alcohol tests. That had been opposed by Amalgamated Transit Union 113.

More carriers will begin to look at testing policies of their own, even if they operate only in Canada, Bradley predicts. For its part, the Canadian Trucking Alliance is developing a template and best practices for those who want to introduce a testing policy.

“There will be more testing, and specifically random drug and alcohol testing,” says Connor Page, a spokesman with of DriverCheck, a business that provides driver medicals and drug screening. “There’s really nothing restricting companies, assuming they don’t have a unionized workforce. We have lots of clients that already do that, and there are some court cases that set a precedence for allowing that.”

But those that currently use urine tests in their programs will likely begin the shift to testing for oral fluids, Page says. Even if a test can’t prove a driver is impaired, tighter time windows will be able to help determine if someone consumed marijuana on the job, he adds.

“It’s going to become an ever-expanding problem,” predicts Mike Millian, president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada. Employers have already seen an increase among those who are authorized to use medical marijuana. Broader legalization would build on that.

But employers need help, he says. The group has already reached out to the federal government, asking for support in introducing testing regimes.

So far, that support has been lacking.

“The federal government is saying, ‘We’re going to legalize it and good luck to you,'” Millian says.


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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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