‘Dear Justin’: A Loving Correspondence with the Prime Minister, Episode 2

Published on August 25, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Dear Justin,

What a summer! Parliament hasn’t been in session since June 21 and yet we’ve both been so busy. Me lying awake at night, reflecting the horrifying news cycle, and you attending summits in Europe, basking in the glow of your Rolling Stone cover, and meeting with narcissists with nuclear codes. Good times!

Are you looking forward to officially getting back to work this fall? You have so much to do this session. From what I’ve seen in the news lately, revamping the country’s impaired driving laws will be among the first things on your to-do list. You and our Minister of Justice will have your hands full making good on the promise to “strengthen existing drug-impaired driving laws and create a regime that would be amongst the strongest in the world, particularly where cannabis is legal.”

While we’re on this topic, I must admit I feel very conflicted about it. Of course, reckless, impaired, distracted, and rage-fueled driving that needlessly puts others in harm’s way makes my blood boil. But I’m worried about what appear to be uninformed marijuana impairment limits, and the ineffective tools that will be used to detect impairment.

Impaired driving makes my blood boil. But I’m worried about the ineffective tools that will be used to detect impairment.

What’s more, I’m baffled by the glaring absence of any laws addressing the growing number of drivers hitting the road on opioids or simply on their phone. After all, eight out of ten collisions are the result of distracted driving. Should this not also hold a place within the new regime?

I see your dilemma. There is a lot of cognitive dissonance in the world and public opinion doesn’t always align with that same public’s actions. Every politician, no matter how handsome, will at some point, patronize the public’s fears with laws and penalties regardless of their reason, efficacy, or even fairness. And now we are doing this dance on the issue of impaired driving, n’est-ce pas?

I’m on your side, Justin. I really am. I’ve seen firsthand how an impaired driver can decimate a person’s future. But if the new regime is to be effective, it must use tools grounded in good science and be practiced fairly. As of this writing, it does neither.

The roadside testing methods proposed to catch and deter stoned drivers look good in theory and on paper. But in (evidence-based) practice, they are conceptually promising at best. While saliva tests remain in the testing phase, blood tests—which determine if a driver’s body contains the 2 nanograms to 5 nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood required for them to be labelled impaired—are questioned by experts who know two important things:

  • THC can remain in the blood above the legal (though flawed) limit for sometimes weeks after cannabis use, long after any and all impairment has waned, particularly in frequent users
  • This information makes blood testing for THC a flawed and unscientific approach to testing.

That leaves Drug Recognition Experts (DREs), specially trained officers who conduct roadside tests to determine if there are probable grounds to conduct further testing (i.e. blood tests). There are only about 578 DREs in Canada—not nearly enough to go around even if the blood-test problem were solved. Is that why you intend to give these and other officers new authority to administer mandatory alcohol impairment testing on drivers without cause?

Be honest, somebody is Trojan Horse-ing here, right? While the media and public are focused on high drivers and lowering of the legal alcohol limit (which I’m all for, by the way), a critical change to roadside alcohol testing is tiptoeing in undercover.

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As your Government of Canada website explains, the proposed mandatory alcohol screening provisions would “authorize law enforcement officers who have an ‘approved screening device’ at hand to demand breath samples of any driver they lawfully stop, without first requiring that they have a suspicion that the driver has alcohol in their body.” And as I exclaim at my kitchen table, “What the hell, man? Are you serious?”

Permit me to play this out for you, real-world style. This change could mean that if a cop stops a sober person for a broken taillight and doesn’t like their attitude, gender, or colour of skin, that officer can detain them without cause and administer a breathalyzer.

“Well, if they’re sober then what’s the big deal?” I hear the masses crying.

First of all, thank you, white people, for sharing your opinion. Second—and this is important—the proposed changes also indicate that the Crown will no longer be required to submit to defense lawyers any information about the maintenance of a breathalyzer device. This is worrying, because machines known to be in need of service could be used in tandem with an officer’s authority to test without reasonable suspicion to target certain people.

Now, I’m not a paranoid person, but you can’t seriously be asking me to put blind faith in law enforcement or politicians who can take a look at what’s inside my body without having any reason at all.

What I’m saying is what you should be thinking, Mr. Prime Minister: These changes have the potential to be profoundly abused in the same the way roadside THC tests could be abused. What happens when mandatory testing is inevitably expanded to include testing drivers for marijuana, a drug we already know can stay in users’ systems for weeks after high times are over? What happens when those users’ are deemed “impaired” and punished?

I can’t say it any better than the CMHA’s Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Report: “Because the technology to detect an individual’s level of impairment due to cannabis is still in development at this time, CMHA Ontario recommends a zero-tolerance policy for cannabis consumption in any motorized vehicle in order to ensure road safety during this time of transition.” CMHA, an organization concerned with public health and reality-based prevention in the same way I wish our government would, refreshingly acknowledges that reliable and fair tests just aren’t there yet.

The Minister of Justice’s priorities aren’t wrong, Justin. They’re just improperly calibrated. No one wants impaired drivers on the road but you need to find solutions like say, scientifically validated roadside computer simulations, that aren’t lacking in efficacy at the time they become law. Our laws can be the toughest in the world but if they aren’t accurate and fair, and if they don’t acknowledge the real and growing danger of distracted driving, we’re just missing the point.

Now rest up. You’ve got a big a year ahead you.

Until next time,

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Kate Palbom
Kate Palbom
Kate Palbom is a Canadian writer and the founder of Oddball Communications. She asks a lot of questions. You can follow her on Twitter @KatePalbom.
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