Drug recognition experts give RCMP a weapon in battle against impaired driving

Red Deer RCMP are promising more CheckStops and a greater ability to nab drivers under the influence of drugs.

Red Deer RCMP are promising more CheckStops and a greater ability to nab drivers under the influence of drugs.

While public campaigns against drunk driving are widespread, and police have tools with which they can determine blood-alcohol content to back up their suspicions, officers speak of a rise in people getting behind the wheel impaired by drugs. And without the benefit of a device like the breathalyzer, proving impairment via drugs has been far more onerous.

But now with four certified drug recognition experts (DREs), the Red Deer force says it will be able to identify more drug impaired drivers and ensure they face more consequences. DREs are specially trained to identify and charge drivers by determining if they are under the influence of illicit or prescription drugs, or a combination of substances.

Red Deer has had certified DREs as part of its force before, but never four at one time. Cpl. Matt LaBelle with the traffic services division came to the city last year as an accredited DRE and he has since trained three other officers.

LaBelle said without having a drug recognition expert available, it can be difficult for an officer performing a CheckStop to charge someone with impaired driving. With DREs on staff, officers can call one in, and the trained officer will perform a variety of tests back at the station focusing on everything from blood pressure and muscle tone to pupil size.

DREs are called in when drivers perform poorly on field sobriety tests and alcohol has been ruled out as a factor. If through the various psycho-physical tests the DRE believes a driver is impaired by one or a combination of seven categories of drugs, the officer can demand a blood, urine or saliva sample.

“We’re looking at the total picture when we conduct our evaluation, we’re not just pinpointing one thing . . . . We know that certain drug categories cause certain things when it comes to the clinical indicators, so we’re able to steer our way into the right category in terms of calling it,” said LaBelle.

Since he himself was certified in 2011, LaBelle said he has done 40 such evaluations and the urine/blood/saliva samples have always confirmed the presence of the particular drugs he has identified through testing.

Local CheckStops from June 28 resulted in four arrests and suspensions for drugged driving and only three for drunk driving. Because urine samples are typically sent to Vancouver for analysis, charges are still pending for the two drivers arrested for drug impairment on that day. Two other drivers were handed 24-hour suspensions based on the results of field sobriety tests.

In 2008, the federal government passed a law that allows police to compel a blood or urine test where drug impaired driving is suspected, similar to how suspected drunk drivers must accept a breathalyzer test or face charges. The penalties for driving impaired via alcohol and drugs are the same.

But while drunk driving charges relate to blood alcohol concentrations such as 0.05 or 0.08, drug charges are not based on concentrations. Because of that, some critics have noted that there is still room for subjectivity in determining drug impairment, making the process susceptible to abuse.

In 2013 Postmedia News reported on an internal RCMP document obtained through an access-to-information request that spoke of the difficulty of getting expert witnesses to testify in support of police methods and the varying support from Crown prosecutors across Canada to pursue cases.

In 2012, advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada called for the drug recognition expert program to be abandoned, to be replaced by random roadside drug screenings. It called the DRE program cumbersome and expensive.

LaBelle said with police noticing more people driving while affected by illegal or prescription drugs, occasionally mixed with alcohol, officers with special training help to confirm the suspicions of front-line officers. He said drug recognition experts can determine impairments caused by specific drugs and blood or urine tests most of the time merely confirm the presence of the intoxicating substances.

“It comes down to the nuts and bolts of these psycho-physical tests. We look at it and we can see how they process information, we can see how they process the directions on how to properly conduct the test and then we see them conduct the test and see if they can do that correctly or not,” he said.

LaBelle said the four Red Deer DREs will also be available to help other area detachments if called upon.

mfish@bprda.wpengine.com

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