OTTAWA — Recreational cannabis becomes legal in Canada in less than a month, but when it does most police forces won’t yet be deploying devices that check a driver’s saliva for recent drug use.
The National Post contacted 15 of Canada’s largest police forces, and almost all said they’re still deciding whether to order the devices. Though the federal government approved one such device for use more than three weeks ago, many forces are waiting for it to approve a range of devices.
In the meantime, police will rely on a field sobriety test — which can involve standing on one leg or tracking an object with your eye — to screen for drug-impaired driving at the roadside. If a driver fails, police can bring them in for further testing.
Roadside saliva-testing devices became legal in Canada after Bill C-46 passed in June. The Liberal government has touted them as an important new tool for cracking down on drug-impaired driving.
But police can’t order a model until it has been evaluated and approved according to federal standards. The evaluation process has dragged on for most of the year — longer than government officials had anticipated. The government keeps secret which devices are being evaluated, how many are being evaluated and the level of progress in general.
“Details of those evaluations will remain confidential to protect the commercial and proprietary interests of the manufacturers,” Justice Canada said in a statement to the National Post. “We cannot speculate on the timeline of these evaluations.”
Federal officials have said the evaluation process is out of their control, as it’s conducted independently by an expert committee of the Canadian Society of Forensic Science. Additionally, there must be a 30-day public notice period for any device the committee recommends before Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould can approve it.
Wilson-Raybould has approved just one device so far: the Draeger DrugTest 5000. No other device has even made it to the public notice stage. But police have eyed the Draeger device skeptically, particularly when it comes to its cost and its ability to withstand Canadian winters.
“The issue around keeping the swabs at a right temperature is problematic in our current climate,” Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau told reporters last week. He said they run about $6,000 each. “Once we buy one, we have to equip each police cruiser with one of these devices and that’s not practical at this time.”
Other police forces say they’re putting off the decision to wait for more information, more training or more devices.
“As further devices are expected to become approved shortly, we are waiting to have more information before we choose a course of action,” said the Hamilton Police Service.
“At this time we have not placed an order,” said the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. “We are still considering our options for the detection of cannabis in drivers.”
Police forces in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Toronto, Windsor, London, and Peel Region (Mississauga and Brampton) all confirmed they’re holding off on ordering devices. The Ontario Provincial Police is still deliberating, as are all Quebec police while they wait for provincial guidelines.
Two police forces told the Post they plan to order a handful of Draeger devices to start training on them: Winnipeg and Durham Region (the Oshawa area). A few smaller Ontario forces, such as Owen Sound and Orangeville, also told local media they plan to order devices.
The RCMP has ordered 20 Draeger devices while it develops a training curriculum for all police to use, but would not say whether it would equip its own officers with the Draegers.
“The RCMP will have a strategic, limited, rollout of approved drug screening equipment that will be deployed in consultation with our provincial, territorial and municipal partners,” it said.
Public safety minister Ralph Goodale said last week the delay is because some police forces want another option beyond the Draeger device.
“A number of police forces have indicated that that’s not their preferred device, but there are others in the queue that are coming forward for scientific certification and verification as well,” he said.
A statement from Draeger said their device has a track record of reliability with law enforcement around the world. “While we can’t comment on how police officers choose to mitigate drugged driving or speak publicly about customer orders of our devices, we look forward to working closely with Canadian law enforcement to help them make our roads safer,” it said.
Public Safety Canada and the RCMP conducted a pilot project last year with two other devices, the Securetec DrugRead and the Alere DDS-2, making it likely that those are under evaluation now.
Any device chosen by police will be challenged in court by defence lawyers arguing they’re unreliable. The government has responded that these devices have survived court challenges in other countries, and would be used here for screening drivers for further impairment testing, not as the basis for criminal charges.