Senator Claude Carignan to table bill aimed at getting drug-impaired drivers off roads

Senate Opposition leader Claude Carignan says he will table a bill to keep drug-impaired drivers off the road as the government prepares to legalize marijuana.

Proposed legislation would give police powers, tools to test for pot and other drugs

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Claude Carignan, speaks about legislation on dealing with driving under the influence of drugs during a news conference in Ottawa on Monday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Senate Opposition leader Claude Carignan says he will table a bill to keep drug-impaired drivers off the road as the government prepares to legalize marijuana.

Carignan will hold a news conference in Ottawa today to outline proposed legislation that would amend the Criminal Code to permit police to use roadside saliva tests for drugs. 

Carignan said drug-impaired driving is a growing problem that goes largely unreported because of a lack of roadside measurement devices. Of all impaired driving charges, 97 per cent are for alcohol and only three per cent for drugs.

He said the situation will become more grave when marijuana is legalized, yet the government does not have a strategy.

"The problem is major at present and will become catastrophic if marijuana is legalized," he said during a news conference today. 

Legal pot bill coming in 2017

His proposed legislation, details of which were provided in advance to CBC, would be introduced in the Senate Tuesday and aimed at improving public safety and deterrence.

The federal government has promised to table a bill to legalize pot by the spring of 2017. 

A task force led by former deputy prime minister, health and justice minister Anne McLellan will advise the government on the regulatory framework that will include a new system of pot sales and distribution.

Andrew Murie, chief executive officer of MADD Canada, said road safety must be paramount as part of that plan. 

He urged the government not to legalize marijuana before police have the proper tools and training in place, and before the public is sufficiently educated about the dangers of being stoned behind the wheel.

"In the ideal world, the drug-impaired legislation would come first and then Health Canada would spend a year educating Canadians, especially parents, on the risk of cannabis use, closing the illegal dispensaries followed by the start of legal recreational marijuana sales through a public health model," he said.

Push for drug testing

MADD has been pushing for roadside tests for drugs that are similar to breathalyzers for alcohol, which have proved effective and cost efficient in European countries and parts of Australia.

MADD's analysis of national statistics found 614 road fatalities in 2012 involved drivers with drugs in their system, compared with 476 fatalities where drivers had alcohol in their system.

Yet the rate of charges for driving under the influence of drugs remains very low compared to alcohol-related charges.

Right now, police can demand physical co-ordination tests, and if they believe a driver is impaired by a drug, they can demand a drug recognition evaluation.

But MADD said that process is time consuming and requires specialized training, which is why it results in few charges.

Murie fears the alarming trend could become even worse when recreational marijuana is legalized, and he raised particular concerns about younger drivers.

He said there should be zero tolerance for drugs in graduated licensing regimes.