Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay, Ont., police see spike in drivers impaired by drugs

Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., are seeing a spike in the number of drivers impaired by drugs this year, and say that despite the wide availability of cannabis, it is rarely the cause.

Despite early worries around legalization, cannabis rarely the cause, police say

Thunder Bay police have seen a spike in the number of people driving while impaired by drugs this year. (Christina Jung / CBC)

Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., are seeing a spike in the number of drivers impaired by drugs this year, and say that despite the wide availability of cannabis, it is rarely the cause.

"The national average is about five per cent of all impaired driving is attributed to drugs alone, and the rest being alcohol," Thunder Bay police Const. Mark Cattani said. "So far [in Thunder Bay], we're at 20 per cent for this year."

Cattani said there have been 116 impaired driving charges in the northwestern Ontario city to date this year. Of those drivers, 24 were impaired by drugs.

 He added that very few of those impaired-by-drug charges involve cannabis, despite its recent legalization in Canada.

"Not to say that cannabis hasn't been ... a secondary or a tertiary drug that's impairing, but primarily what we're seeing is not cannabis," Cattani said. "It's opioids, stimulants like crack cocaine, and abused prescription medications."

"It looks like the legalization of cannabis is being treated by users in a responsible fashion," he said. "That's a good thing."

The legalization of cannabis prompted some concern about the effects the drug would have on impaired driving in Canada. Cattani said, noting that police services — including the force in Thunder Bay — received funding to train officers to better detect drivers impaired by drugs.

However, the process to confirm impairment by drug is more involved, and takes more time, than alcohol-related situations, he said.

A long process

Cattani said, for example, roadside tests for suspected impaired drivers generally take more than 10 minutes, whereas administering a breath test to a suspected drunk driver takes a few seconds.

"The drug recognition evaluation, which takes place at the station is anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the subject," he said. "Then there's the blood draw, which occurs afterward, so you're going to the hospital."

"Afterwards, the evaluator has to write a narrative that goes along to support his observations, or her observations," Cattani said. "And then the blood gets evaluated by the Centre of Forensic Sciences to determine what actually ... was in the person's body. So really, the whole process, [is about] three months."

It's a big problem, Cattani said, because there isn't really a pattern when it comes to impaired by drug charges, unlike alcohol.

"Alcohol, because it's more socially acceptable, and you can expect alcohol to be consumed at certain times of the week, of the day, of the year, it's more predictable," he said. "I don't want to say it's entirely predictable, but it's more predictable. We know that weekends, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., we're more than likely to find an impaired driver on the road."

"Drugs are not the same because there's more substance abuse and addiction that plays into it, so it's not like somebody's choosing to go out and consume the drug," he said. "They're likely using it at any time of the day."

Not recreational users

"There's also prescription medications that get abused, and those, essentially, are taken at any time of the day."

Cattani said police have arrested drug-impaired drivers at all hours of the day.

"We're talking largely about addiction issues causing the impaired driving," he said. "We're not finding it's recreational users as much as you would expect with alcohol, so that's where the difficulty really lies."

"How do we as a service, and as a city, and a country, really, address that problem? And I think we're all asking that question right now."