Two weeks after the federal government officially approved the first roadside test to detect the presence of marijuana in a person’s body, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) says it’s not jumping to equip its police cruisers with the device ahead of cannabis legalization next month because of concerns about the machine’s accuracy, its cost and how it’s used.
“We will continue to monitor its use and progress … as more information becomes available as some of those cases work through the courts,” Insp. Murray Knowles, who has led the OPS cannabis project since March, told members of the Ottawa Police Services Board on Tuesday afternoon.
More than 40 countries in the world are using the Dräger DrugTest 5000 right now, including Norway and Finland, but the device’s introduction in Canada has been a bit rocky.
Concerns have been raised about the amount of false-positive or false-negative results produced by the saliva-screening equipment, which detects THC, the main psychoactive agent in cannabis. In addition, each Dräger costs $6,000; an expense Bordeleau said “is not practical at this time” for the OPS, if the force is required to buy one machine for each police vehicle.
On top of that, the device is climate-sensitive and only works in temperatures between 4 C and 40 C, raising questions about whether it would function properly during winters in Ottawa, when temperatures often plummet below zero.
“We’ll monitor the technology to see how it evolves,” Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau told reporters on Tuesday. “The issue around keeping the swabs at a right temperature is problematic in our current climate, so we’re going to see how other police services are dealing with that.”
As of Oct. 17, 2018, it will be legal for adults to buy and consume recreational marijuana in Canada. In Ontario, until private retail sales launch in April 2019, legal weed will only be available to individuals 19 and older through the online Ontario Cannabis Store.
Ottawa police have reiterated over and over that public safety remains a “No. 1 priority” for the force as legalization plays out.
So how will officers screen for drug-impaired drivers starting Oct. 17? The same way they have for several years, Bordeleau said, except more of them are going to be trained to identify and prosecute individuals who may be high behind the wheel.
Members of the police services board heard Tuesday the OPS now has 246 standardized field sobriety test officers, who are frontline officers responsible for assessing and identifying drug-impaired drivers.
Since the federal government announced it would legalize cannabis, Bordeleau said the police force has also doubled its number of trained drug recognition experts to 24; these experts are called in to gather evidence if the frontline officers believe there are grounds for an individual to be tested further.
“I’m confident that we have a good number of officers trained now,” Bordeleau told reporters after the board meeting. “We will continue to increase that number, so residents should feel that their police service has the number of officers out there to be able to detect anybody who has been drinking or driving while intoxicated by any type of drugs.”
Knowles said a little more than half of all OPS officers are now trained to administer standard field sobriety tests. Every new police recruit over the last couple of years has received that training in Ottawa, in anticipation of legalized marijuana, he added.
Bordeleau told members of the board he expects it will take another year or two to train all of Ottawa’s officers in field sobriety testing.
Meanwhile, 15 officers per year are being trained as drug recognition experts, Bordeleau said. That training, however, is “very expensive” and time-consuming, Knowles told Global News. Officers have to be sent to Florida for a three-week-long course, involving two weeks of theoretical training and one full week of testing on live subjects, he said.
Bordeleau told reporters after that Public Safety Canada and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police are trying to find a way to make this training available in Canada.
With their current numbers, Knowles said there should be two to three drug recognition experts working during each shift.
‘We’re as ready as we can be with the information that we have’
Even with a big push in training, there’s still a lot of information Ottawa police say they still need in order to fully plan for proper enforcement once recreational marijuana is legalized.
“We’re as ready as we can be with the information that we have,” Bordeleau told reporters.
Like everyone in the province, the OPS is waiting on the Ontario government to table legislation on its proposed retail pot shop model; until that happens, there are no details on who the licensed private distributors will be and who will be responsible for regulating them.
From an “on the ground” standpoint, Bordeleau said officers are anxious to get information about fines for drug-related offences, such as smoking marijuana in a public place. (This will remain prohibited in Ontario after cannabis is legalized.)
“If somebody’s smoking in public – that’s probably what we’re going to see most of – what’s the ticket I write, what’s the fine and what’s the court process,” the police chief said. “I think from an operational perspective, that’s a key piece.”
Preparing officers to deal with new cannabis products like edibles, and training them in new search and seizure rules, are other “pressing” issues, Bordeleau added.
On the potential impact pot legalization will have on the police service’s budget, Bordeleau said the only number the OPS can “rely upon” is a research paper prepared by York Regional Police, which pegged potential costs at approximately $6 million per year. That number included ongoing training, maintenance and legal costs, he said.
Bordeleau did say, however, that Ottawa police anticipate receiving more calls for service as the public “adjusts” to the legal weed framework, like complaints about smoking and the smell of marijuana in public and residential areas.
— With a file from Mike Drolet