Drugged drivers slip away

The provincial government’s new legislation to curb drivers under the influence of drugs is a commendable effort. But it is full of holes. And its legal foundation is questionable.

The provincial government’s new legislation to curb drivers under the influence of drugs is a commendable effort.

But it is full of holes. And its legal foundation is questionable.

On the surface the law, which came into effect on Thursday, looks good. It stipulates that anybody caught driving in a ‘suspected impaired manner’ under the influence of drugs — even cold medication — can be given licence suspensions before their day in court.

Drugged drivers are no less dangerous than drunk drivers. They should be taken off the road and punished to the fullest extent of the law. The danger they pose is real and deadly.

Cpl. Wayne Oakes, RCMP spokesperson for K Division headquarters, says the legislation appears to be a “good initiative” on the surface.

But under the surface, it’s a poor piece of legislation headed for a dead end at the taxpayers’ expense.

There’s a great deal of confusion with this new law, mostly because the provincial government is attempting to apply the same rules of licence suspensions for drunk driving to those offenders driving under the influence of drugs.

Alberta laws allow police to impose licence suspensions against persons charged with drunk driving before their cases hit the courts. But those charges rely heavily on breathalyzer readings of over .08 per cent.

Drugs are a different story. There’s no such .08 per cent magic reading and each drug has a different effect on drivers.

Last year, the federal government enacted legislation requiring a suspected drugged driver to give a blood or urine sample upon demand to determine the amount of drugs in that person’s system. Alberta’s legislation is relying heavily on that law. Peace officers, as they could before the legislation, will demand such tests.

But the federal law is untenable. No litmus test exists to determine what constitutes being impaired by drugs — be it through a blood or urine test. The test can demonstrate that the subject has taken drugs, but not that the drugs impair the person. Nor do scales of drug impairment exist in the broader scientific world.

How can Alberta’s laws impose driving restrictions when federal laws can’t say what determines drugged driving? Without that guideline, the provincial law is impotent, ripe for an expensive challenge at the appeal court level.

Common sense should also make it clear that before Alberta could even consider a mandatory/temporary licence suspension, it would have to wait for the results of a body fluid test. Blood and urine tests are not instant, like a roadside .08 breathalyzer test.

In addition, the federal law, passed last year, is questionable under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The uncertainty about collection standards puts the whole initiative in jeopardy.

Blood and urine samples must be conducted by medical professionals, but those professionals can refuse.

Because of that right to refusal, the law cannot be applied equally: one doctor can say yes and another doctor can say no.

The charter is explicit — equal application of the law is paramount or the law is invalid. There is no wiggle room.

Certainly we need to get drugged drivers off our roads. But government efforts, at both the provincial and federal levels, have fallen short. The intent is laudable; the result is not.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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