SGI training more drug recognition experts, despite concerns testing is 'highly subjective'

SGI is standing by training more drug recognition experts in the lead-up to marijuana legalization, despite concerns being raised that the tests these officers administer may be flawed.

'No one out there is convinced it's a fail-safe procedure,' says Saskatoon defence lawyer

There are currently 74 trained drug recognition experts in Saskatchewan, with 20 more being trained this spring in preparation for marijuana legalization. (Shutterstock)

Saskatchewan Government Insurance is standing by a plan to train more drug recognition experts in the lead-up to marijuana legalization, despite concerns being raised that the tests these officers administer may be flawed.

"SGI is paying for more drug recognition experts," said Joe Hargrave, the minister responsible for the Crown corporation.

There are currently 74 trained drug recognition experts in Saskatchewan, with 20 more being trained this spring in preparation for marijuana legalization.

Joe Hargrave, the minister responsible for SGI, says the Crown corporation is investing in getting more drug recognition experts trained in preparation for marijuana legalization. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

"We'll be as ready as we can be for that. We're pushing and supplying that for all the municipalities and the RCMP to get more drug recognition experts on the streets and more field sobriety tests and experts," said Hargrave.

"That's what we need to lay the proper charges to people for impaired driving by drugs."

Reliability questioned

Some experts say it's not a reliable way of assessing impairment.

"There's a lot of contention out there about how reliable they are. They are deemed to be highly subjective," said Ron Piché, a defence lawyer based in Saskatoon who specializes in defending impaired driving cases.

"It's a bit of a work-in-progress and no one out there is convinced it's a fail-safe procedure."

When asked if these tests are scientific, Hargrave said, "it works."

"There's no machine involved in it. But these people are trained to recognize when people are impaired by drugs," he said, adding that courts recognize their expertise to testify in cases of impaired driving.

The drug recognition experts, or DREs, use a 12-step test, which involves examining a suspect's vital signs, eyes, balance and ability to concentrate.

The test done by a drug recognition expert involves 12 steps conducted over about an hour. (CBC)

"It's a laborious process, and I appreciate the carnage of impaired driving is something that Parliament has to address," said Piché.

"But it just strikes me that there's a lot of difficulties with this. It's very intrusive … and at the end of the day, there's an element of subjective criteria that simply makes it potentially a very dangerous type of investigative tool."

Criminal defence attorney Mark Brayford, though, said drug recognition experts may be the most useful tool Canada has at the moment to test impairment.

"Obviously a test is only as good and reliable as the skill of the officer that's doing it when it's not being done by a mechanical or electronic instrument," he said.

But he noted drug recognition experts attempt to evaluate someone's level of impairment, unlike tests that measure THC levels, which may or may not be a good indication of impairment.

Investing in DREs

According to a spokesperson for SGI, the insurer has allocated $120,000 for training DREs since the start of 2017.

"It's not just sort of a one-day training course here that you sort of come to and get a little bit of training," said Hargrave.

"They're sent away — it's very expensive to send them away."

Training costs $3,200 to $3,500 per officer, not including the wages of the officers attending the training. SGI has already provided funding for approximately 60 of the DREs, and is funding the upcoming 20.

For Saskatchewan, the first two weeks of training are held at the RCMP depot in Regina. Then, the candidates head to the U.S. for the practical portion of the training.

Don Morgan, Saskatchewan's minister of justice, said Wednesday that the province is lobbying the federal government to provide resources for training drug recognition experts.

Public Safety Canada has said it will invest up to $81 million in new law enforcement training across the country, paying to train 750 more drug recognition experts over the next five years, and to train more than 3,000 officers to administer a shortened version of the observational test known as the standardized field sobriety test.

Future technology

Piché recognized that at this point there are not a lot of alternatives for testing drivers for drug impairment, but he expects more technology to be developed to properly assess it in the future. 

He also pointed to problems with the saliva test that can be used to assess drug impairment.

"The critics out there are suggesting that some of the active ingredient in marijuana — that is, the THC, the impairment ingredient — has a lasting effect," said Piché.

Piché said this means it could trigger a false-positive test when the individual is not in fact impaired.

"As the science develops and there's a greater need, you are going to see devices and instruments that could be qualified and certified to measure more accurately the active impairing ingredient," said Piché.

"I'm not sure everything is lined up properly at this point." 

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