Minister confident police in Canada ready for cannabis legalization next week
Bill Blair says police given time, money to identify high drivers, but police forces still concerned
Police forces across Canada should be ready for legalization of recreational marijuana next week because the federal government has provided funds, training and approval of drug-screening technology ahead of the big deadline, says a federal cabinet minister.
Bill Blair, minister of border security and organized crime reduction, says the government provided up to $161 million one year ago for police training in how to detect the presence of drugs in drivers. In August, it also approved the use of roadside drug screening equipment to identify those driving while high.
"For the first time ever, the police have been given the training, the tools and the technology to actually detect and deter," he told CBC Radio's Metro Morning Tuesday.
In the last 18 months, there has been a 60 per cent increase in the number of police officers trained as drug recognition experts in Canada, he said. There are now more than 880 police officers in Canada trained to recognize drug-impaired drivers.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, however, has said there should be 2,000 trained to fulfil the government's push to crack down on drug-impaired drivers.
Blair said police forces have access to the new Dräger DrugTest 5000, which tests saliva for cocaine and THC, the main psychoactive agent in cannabis. The device, which includes an "analyzer" and cassettes, received approval from the federal Department of Justice.
"People are already and have been for years driving under the influence of drugs and police have never had the ability to detect it," he said.
Blair acknowledged the roadside equipment is new to Canada but said the technology essentially enables police to render a situation safe.
He said if officers use the equipment to detect the presence of a drug, they can suspend a driver's licence, remove the driver from the road and tow his or her car away. He said that ability has a deterrent effect.
"I have great confidence in the police community to do the job if they are given the tools to do it right," he said.
Police forces 'worried' about road safety
Police forces, however, aren't so sure they are ready.
In an interview with Metro Morning earlier on Tuesday, Bruce Chapman, president of Police Association of Ontario, said police forces are concerned about legalization.
"We are worried from the policing perspective of what our roads will be," Chapman said on Tuesday. "It is concerning and I think there is evidence to back that concern."
He said that concern comes from the experience of police in U.S. states, including Colorado and Washington, where the drug has been legalized, and from the number of road deaths caused by drivers with THC in their systems.
Later Tuesday, Chapman told CBC Toronto that the technology police will be using to detect drivers who are high has not been tested in court in Ontario.
"We anticipate challenges from defence counsel every step of the way until we get to the Supreme Court of Canada," he said.
Blair meeting Canadians days ahead of legalization
For his part, Blair is travelling across the country in the week before legalization, meeting with Canadians to discuss legalization and regulation of cannabis, with the aim of keeping it away from children.
Blair said he is confident that Canada itself will be ready, but he acknowledged there will be "growing pains" as the country adjusts to the new regulatory regime on Oct. 17.
"We've spent the last two-and-a-half years getting ready," he said, adding that strict regulations will be in place for cannabis production and distribution.
Blair said the federal government worked closely with provinces, territories, municipalities and police forces to draft the new regulations governing recreational marijuana use and to teach people how they will work.
"Certainly, there are some learning processes that will still take place and a little bit of growing pains, we anticipate, will occur. But we're putting in a system of very strict and comprehensive regulations that replaces a frankly failed system of prohibition that hasn't been working in this country for decades."
The production and distribution of marijuana will become a highly regulated industry overseen by Health Canada and the provinces, said.
"That replaces the drug dealer on the corner," he said.
Canada's new Cannabis Act will come into effect on Oct. 17.
With files from Metro Morning