Saskatoon

What Saskatoon drivers should know about police road checks in the legal pot age

Saskatoon police officers will soon begin trying out one kit that tests for drug impairment using a saliva swab sample.

Saskatoon police to try out one kit that tests for impairment using a saliva swab sample

Saskatoon drivers suspected of impaired driving may be asked to step out of their vehicle and walk in a straight line. “What Hollywood has gotten us used to, more or less,” said Staff Sgt. Patrick Barbar, the head of Saskatoon's traffic unit. (CBC)

Saskatoon police officers' method for testing motorists for impaired driving will involve at least one new step in the legal cannabis age, albeit one applied on a very small scale initially.

Police Chief Troy Cooper said the service will soon begin testing out one Dräger DrugTest 5000. It's a federally-approved kit that involves swabbing the inside of people's cheeks and testing their saliva for cocaine and THC, the main psychoactive agent in cannabis.

But the Saskatoon Police Service is also training more and more officers to detect the influence of cannabis using more familiar method, Cooper and his staff told a small gathering of residents at a public meeting Tuesday night.

Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper speaks at a public event detailing how his officers will police impaired driving in the legal cannabis age. (Guy Quenneville/CBC )

The first step during a roadside stop will remain a Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST), which officers have used to test drivers for alcohol impairment for the last several years.

Forty officers, including Staff Sgt. Patrick Barbar, the head of the force's traffic unit, are trained to deliver the five-to-10-minute tests, which involve having people walk in a straight line or lift one leg up.

"What Hollywood has gotten us used to, more or less," said Barbar.

Physical disabilities to be factored 

That method alone can lead to a conviction for cannabis impaired driving. Barbar said eight to nine years ago, he stopped a driver on 8th Street he suspected was impaired by cannabis and did the SFST test.

The case went to trial, with Barbar as a witness, and the person was convicted.

"It's a technique that does work," he said, adding that "several more" officers are due to get the training.

With the saliva-testing Dräger still not in hand, "we'll be relying more heavily on this technique," Barbar said of the SFST test.

In response to a question, Barbar said officers will take into account people with physical disabilities, using the example of a person in a cast.

"They're obviously not going to be able to walk a straight line, so the officer will have to determine that through questions and observation," he said.

Next step: a visit to the station

Let's say you fail the sobriety test; the next step is to go to the Saskatoon Police Station and undergo up to 45 minutes of additional testing under the watch of an officer trained to be a drug recognition expert.

It involves a more in-depth series of tests lasting 45 minutes and includes pulse and temperatures readings, an interview and observation.

After failing an initial on-road sobriety test, drivers may then be taken to the Saskatoon police headquarters for more observation and testing. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Phlebotomists may take blood and urine samples for analysis at a lab to confirm an officer's diagnosis.

"Blood will have to be sent off for analysis before we can charge this offence," said Barbar.

Barbar has taken the three-week drug recognition training. So have 14 other Saskatoon police officers.

He said he was "amazed" with the accuracy with which he diagnosed which category of drug — one of seven — a person was impaired under.

"We continue to train more for our patrol purposes," he said.

'What are you doing with [the] DNA?'

The new wrinkle in the process is the Dräger DrugTest 5000 unit the police force will try out; Cooper didn't say for how long.

If an officer equipped with the service's lone Dräger kit believes a driver has used or is under the influence of cannabis following the SFST test, they'll ask the driver to place a Q-tip in their cheek for a while.

The swab will then get placed in a machine that Barbar said resembles a Keurig coffee machine, with "a little door at the front."

The Dräger DrugTest 5000 comes with an 'analyzer' or reader, pictured here. (CBC)

"That instrument will come back either positive or negative for a couple of different drugs," said Barbar.

One of the people listening to Barbar, Eileen Bear, had the most interesting question of the night.

"What are you doing with DNA that's on the swab after you've taken the test?" she asked.

"As a police service, we don't hang on to that information," said Barbar.

"Once we've analyzed it in our instrument, it actually gets sent to a lab for confirmation analysis," he added. "We're using a portable machine in the field; we want confirmation afterwards."

The process described left Bear feeling a little uneasy.

"We're voluntarily giving up our DNA samples. I mean, there's problem in that," she said. "There's a problem for them asking us for that information also."

Eileen Bear wanted to know what ends up happening with the DNA obtained from the saliva swabs. The police service says it will not hang on to that information. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Another resident, Jean-Luc D'eon, said it would be nice if people could go to the police station and test themselves for cannabis impairment.

"Generally speaking we know we can have a couple regular beers, wait two hours, and we probably won't have any blood alcohol level," he said. 

"But with marijuana, we don't actually know. So it would be nice for each person, in case it's different for each person, for people to go in and get tested and then we could have some sort of general rule, with a good margin of error, and we could know that we weren't going to be charged with a DUI down the line or we would know exactly the time we need."

But Barbar said the police force was unlikely to begin providing that service. He suggested the private sector might — "if there's money to be made."

What punishment you can expect

The federal government has created several new driving-related criminal code charges to account for cannabis.

One of them would make it an offence to refuse to take a road-side drug test. 

Drivers who have a blood drug concentration of more than two nanograms of THC (per mililitre of blood) but less than five nanograms could be found guilty of drugged driving under the proposed summary offence, which has a maximum fine of $1,000.

Drivers caught with more than five nanograms of THC in their blood would be guilty of impaired driving, while drivers with both alcohol and THC in their system would be considered impaired if they have more than 50 miligrams of alcohol (per 100 mililitres of blood) and greater than 2.5 nanograms of THC in their blood.

The Saskatchewan government will also impose sanctions on convicted drivers. The government is taking what it's calling a "zero-tolerance" approach to drug-impaired driving.

A charged driver will have their licence suspended until a court decides their legal fate. Their car will also be seized for up to 60 days.

If they're convicted, drivers can face a variety of punishments, including fines of up to $2,500 and a suspended licence for up to five years. 

Barbar said people who have a prescription for medical marijuana but are found to be driving impaired will be treated like everyone else.

"Having a prescription doesn't negate the fact that you're inebriated," he said. 

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips, ideas, complaints, just want to say 'Hi'? Write me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

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