Police training lags as marijuana legalization looms: documents

As marijuana legalization looms, police are trying to figure out how to deal with stoned drivers. File / Getty Images

The number of police officers trained to recognize and respond to signs of drug impairment on Canada’s roads hasn’t budged much over the last few months, new documents show, a situation that some critics say could prove dangerous once marijuana becomes legal this summer.

The documents, tabled in the House of Commons earlier this week in response to a question from a Conservative MP, note that as of Feb. 1, 2018, 665 Canadian police officers were certified as Drug Recognition Experts (DRE).

About 150 of those officers had received their training sometime over the previous 10 months.

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The overall total includes hundreds of officers from municipal and provincial police forces, along with 196 members of the RCMP. Forty more police officers were scheduled for training by the end of March, the documents state.

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READ MORE: Simple roadside tests can identify pot-impaired drivers, study shows

DRE training is different than the training officers receive to detect if someone is high at the side of the road. If a driver is suspected of being under the influence, the officer at the scene can conduct what are known as standardized field sobriety tests (walking a straight line, for example).

If those tests show evidence of impairment, the driver may need to accompany the officer to a police station for further evaluation by someone trained in the DRE program.

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In addition to the 665 DRE-certified officers, about 3,380 officers are now trained in side-of-the-road sobriety testing in Canada, according to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP). About 1,300 of those are RCMP officers.

“We have estimated that we will need to double these numbers to address the projected increase in the volume of impaired driving cases (after legalization),” the CACP told Global News in an emailed statement this week.

“Fortunately, police academies across the country have been ramping up their programs to increase their capacity to deliver training.”

The RCMP echoed that sentiment in a statement of its own.

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“RCMP divisions and provinces are working diligently to increase the number of trained officers while ensuring that there is a strategic deployment of trained police officers across each jurisdiction,” it read.

“Other provincial and municipal police agencies are also training their officers in Standardized Field Sobriety Testing.”

The total number of front-line police officers serving in Canada, including RCMP, is around 22,000.

‘An impossible position’

The association of police chiefs has been flagging the need for additional training for months, including last September during testimony before a House of Commons committee.

“We expect an increase in encounters with people under the influence … It’s very complex and tough training, however, and it’s going to take a while,” said CACP head Mario Harel at the time.

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Indeed, even Ottawa has acknowledged that much of the planned training will happen after legalization. The number of officers who can conduct a pot field-sobriety test is expected to hit 6,000 “over the next three years,” the government promises, with half of front-line officers trained in five years. About 150 new DRE-certified police officers are expected to be churned out every year for the next five years.

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But some forces, like the Ottawa Police Service, have already said they need more guidance and information on training. During an appearance before a Senate committee this week, the mayor of Windsor, Ont. was asked if any of his city’s 430 officers had received updated training linked to marijuana, and he replied: “Not that I’m aware of.”

However, in other cities, like Waterloo, reports suggest things are moving ahead at a better pace.

Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, has promised that Ottawa will do everything possible to support police forces across the country as they try to get ready.

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But Conservative public safety critic Glen Motz says the numbers released this week show that law enforcement agencies, through no fault of their own, are lagging.

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“The Liberals are putting law enforcement in an impossible position,” said Motz, who was an inspector with the Medicine Hat Police Service before winning his seat in a by-election in October 2016.

“They’ve been blind to the realities of what law enforcement, what municipalities and provinces, have been telling this Liberal government all along. Rushing through this legislation will put public safety at risk.”

Policing the border

The documents also shed light on the status of the preparations underway at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), revealing that 20 CBSA officers have now received training to become instructors in Standardized Field Sobriety Testing.

The border agency hopes to use them to ensure that just over 1,400 of their fellow officers are also trained to carry out the testing. The target date for completion is 2021.

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A number of experts, and the CBSA itself, have predicted that there will be an increase in “cannabis tourism” from the United States as soon as pot becomes legal in Canada. And in an intelligence report obtained by Global News in February, the CBSA acknowledged that officers would require additional training in response.

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The CBSA did not respond to a request for comment before publication of this story.

Driving high

In addition to the complexities of training officers to deal with high drivers, there are still lingering questions surrounding what, exactly, constitutes pot impairment.

New Criminal Code rules will see a fine for a driver with less than five nanograms of THC, the active ingredient that gives the user a “high,” in their bloodstream. Stiffer fines and eventually jail time could be imposed for those with five nanograms or more.

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Devices that could be used to administer a roadside saliva test were tested last year, and Public Safety Canada just put out a call for “industry perspectives on timing and availability” of more such devices.

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Meanwhile, studies have shown that Canadians still have a fairly relaxed attitude toward driving while under the influence of marijuana, at least compared to alcohol.

One recent survey, commissioned by the federal government, revealed that among Canadians who confirmed they used the drug, 28 per cent admitted to operating a vehicle under the influence.

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