'Free for all' on city streets as police warn there's no road-side test for pot impairment

How concerned are police and doctors that we don't seem to have a road-side test for measuring impairment from marijuana? Representatives from the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police and Canadian Medical Association gave us an earful of concerns.

No agreement on road-side impairment level, and no acceptable test, experts warn

The task force appointed by Ottawa to study the legalization of marijuana said Tuesday that cannabis sales should be restricted to those 18 and older, with a personal possession limit of 30 grams. (David McNew/Reuters)

Earlier this week a federal task force released 80 recommendations regarding the coming legalization of marijuana.

For their expert opinions and response to that report, Alberta@Noon invited Andy McGrogan, Chief of Police in Medicine Hat and president of the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police, and Jeff Blackmer, vice-president of medical professionalism with the Canadian Medical Association, to share a conversation.

Q: Chief McGrogan, this idea of making 18 the legal age for using pot — what do you think of that?

A: It's an easy number to pick, because that's the alcohol consumption age. It's going to be up to the provinces to put the regulatory framework together. It's interesting. I'm not a health expert, but I'm hearing just like you would, that the developing brain doesn't really stop developing until 25. I'm wondering if 18 is the right age. Again, not my area of expertise. 

Q: Dr. Blackmer, your medical association recommended making 21 the minimum age for marijuana use. What do you think of the recommendation to make it 18?

A: We really had a close look at the medical and scientific evidence of the effect of marijuana on the developing brain, and the fact that the brain continues to develop right up until the age of 25, in coming to our recommendation. You want to avoid having too high of an age limit, because you don't want to drive young people to illicit sources which have their own risks and drawbacks. We thought that taking all these things into consideration, that 21 was a fairly good middle ground when it came to those types of issues. The task force considered the same types of evidence and had a slightly different interpretation. We continue to be comfortable with our recommendation.

Q: Chief McGrogan, do we have a test that you think works well enough to determine if someone is high behind the wheel?

A: Absolutely not. There is no test that's available at this time. I know that everybody's doing the research. There doesn't seem to be enough research on what impairment by marijuana is. That seems to be the sticking point right from the beginning. If you read the report, they actually acknowledge that. They don't know what the impairment level is. Again, I'm no expert on marijuana. I hear different types of marijuana have different types of impairment abilities. It's going to be a complicated thing, and we definitely can't depend on drug recognition experts to actually measure the impairment. It's too subjective in our view. We don't seem to be any closer than we were two years ago to determining how we can do that. 

Q: Chief McGrogan, if police pull somebody over and they suspect that they've been consuming marijuana, or some other illegal drug, how do you test for that now?

A: We have a couple of drug recognition experts that we've had trained. The issue with them is, we basically in a lot of cases, call them out. By the time we get our drug recognition experts out, the impairment that we would've observed when the person was driving may be somewhat different by the time we get the drug recognition expert out to the scene. I can tell you that in Alberta, I don't think there are any convictions in relation to our drug recognition experts at this time. It's basically a free for all. I'm not saying this is going to make it worse, necessarily, but the problem's not fixed.

Q: Chief McGrogan, is there any sense as to how close we might be to having an easy road-side test?

A: No, there really is nothing at this time. That's the issue that the chiefs have is that — first off, let's back up a little bit. No one can even agree on what the impairment level is. In alcohol, we can. There's been lots of research. All kinds of science out there where they can say it's 0.08. [But] society doesn't know what impairment by marijuana is. It's one thing to be able to measure it, but then we have to come to an agreement on what that number is? We haven't even done that yet. 

Q: Dr. Blackmer, how concerned is the medical association about this fact that we don't seem to have a road-side test for measuring impairment from marijuana?

A: We're very concerned, and for two reasons, one of which is exactly what you're saying: that we don't have standardized ways to measure this. We don't have clear evidence about what a cut-off level would be. The other concern is that there's clearly a lack of education and understanding as to the real effect that marijuana has on driving abilities — even though we know studies have clearly shown a linkage between consuming marijuana and impaired driving. That hasn't gotten out to the general population, and particularly to young people.

Q: Dr. Blackmer, if you think of a public health perspective, what is your view of the task force report overall?

A: In spite of the fact that we've mentioned a couple of areas where we differ slightly, overall we're very, very pleased with the report. 

Q: Chief McGrogan, the federal government has said quite clearly that they would like to take legalization slowly. Is that of any consolation to you?

They absolutely have to take it slowly. Before they legalize this, they should actually have the answers to the questions that they're posing in the report. It's fraught with a million questions. I'm comforted that they're taking this slowly. 

Q: Chief McGrogan, do you think we are taking it as slow as we should then?

A: No. If they're trying to get this in in their mandate, it's too fast. Personally, I think that this should be a slow, phased-in process. The research has to be done. Just because we didn't do it right with alcohol in the '30s or whatever it was doesn't mean we can't do it right here. The federal government's trying to do it right. Let's take the time. Let's do it right.

With files from CBC's Alberta@Noon