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'People don’t feel cannabis is quite as bad': Province unveils new drug-impaired driving laws

But some say the plan to test blood for THC is the wrong approach

Brian Mason, Alberta Transportation Minister, speaks at an announcement on drug-impaired driving on Tuesday.

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Kevin Tuong / Edmonton Freelance

Brian Mason, Alberta Transportation Minister, speaks at an announcement on drug-impaired driving on Tuesday.

With the legalization of marijuana eight months away, the province unveiled new rules Tuesday to regulate driving under the influence of cannabis.

The updates Alberta is making to the Traffic Safety Act reflect the changes already proposed for federal impaired driving laws.

“The purpose of this bill is to make our roads as safe as possible for all road users,” Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason said at a Tuesday announcement at the legislature.

“The real risk here is that people don’t feel cannabis is quite as bad or as impairing a substance as alcohol,” he added. “And nothing could be further from the truth.”

The federal government’s recently introduced Bill C-46 outlines new provisions to charge drug-impaired drivers, including but not limited to people who have consumed cannabis. On Tuesday, the Alberta government gave first reading to Bill 29, which will update Alberta’s laws to mirror the federal ones.

Under the proposed legislation, people who have more than two nanograms of THC (the psychoactive component of cannabis) but less than five nanograms per millilitre of blood will face a summary conviction with a maximum $1,000 fine.

Those with more than five nanograms per millilitre of blood will face stronger penalties, similar to impaired drivers convicted of having a blood alcohol concentration of more than 0.08.

Recent research cited by Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction shows cannabis consumption doubles the risk of collision involvement.

But some experts, such as Kevin A. Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama’s drug control director, said the complexities of how THC is metabolized in the body and brain means measuring blood isn’t an effective way to determine impairment.

“There’s no really scientific basis for any per se limit whether it’s two nanograms or five nanograms or 15 nanograms because of the way THC metabolizes in your body,” Sabet said.

THC is metabolized and converted into Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, which is stored in fatty tissues. About 80 to 90 per cent of THC is eliminated from the bloodstream within an hour of consumption, he explained, but because it then goes to the brain, users can be impaired hours after smoking marijuana, even though their THC blood level would register low.  

“It’s not like alcohol, which is in and out of your system very quickly and we can reach a .08 level and agree on it … Because it’s in your fat, it does stay in your system longer,” Sabet said.

For that reason, a more effective measure of impairment would be an oral fluid screening device, which can detect recent use of cannabis but not the concentration of THC, he said, combined with a behavioural test such as the Standard Field Sobriety Tests.

“We’re never going to get a magic 0.08 number. And the law should reflect that and juries will need to come to understand that,” Sabet said on the probability of securing impaired driving convictions without blood evidence.

The government is planning to introduce oral screening devices to determine recent cannabis consumption and provide reasonable grounds for a blood test. Currently, oral screening devices have not been approved in Canada, but the feds are working to have one ready by July 1, 2018, the day of cannabis legalization.

The provincial laws are slated to take effect shortly after the federal Bill C-46 becomes law, likely in June or July 2018.

In addition to updating the Traffic Safety Act to reflect the additions to the Criminal Code of Canada related to drug-impaired driving, the Government of Alberta is introducing several other changes.

New Drivers: Alberta’s Zero Tolerance program for Graduated Driver Licensing drivers will be extended to include zero tolerance for cannabis, cannabis/alcohol combinations and illegal drugs. This change was praised by Brenda Johnson, chair of the MADD Canada National Board of Directors, who shared her appreciation to the government at Tuesday’s press conference.

She said zero tolerance for drugs in young drivers will likely save lives, although they would like to see zero tolerance for young drivers raised to 22 years of age. “That’s a really important feature to protect our youth,” Johnson said. “Your government is leading the country in legislation right now. And it’s a hard job.”

License suspensions: Alberta’s administrative licence suspension program will change so that motorists convicted of driving with a blood alcohol concentration over 0.08 will have their licences immediately suspended for a fixed term 90 days. Previously, their licence remained suspended until the criminal conviction was resolved.

This change was already in the pipeline – in May, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled the practise of revoking licenses until someone is acquitted is unconstitutional because it pressures people to plead guilty in order to get their licence back sooner.

Driving under the influence of other drugs: As part of Bill C-46, the federal government has indicated people can be charged for criminal impaired driving for testing positive for illegal drugs in their blood such as cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

Currently there is no established limit for illegal drugs as there is for cannabis, however the government has said there could be in the future.

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