Saskatchewan drivers will begin to notice more reminders of impaired driving in their communities this month.
MADD Saskatoon’s Mobile Sign Campaign launched on Friday, showing the locations where impaired drivers were caught and charged. The signs also encourage drivers to call 911 if they suspect a driver is impaired.
“Sometimes what catches people more is some of the locations and the time of day,” MADD Saskatoon President Bonny Stevenson said.
“I always tell people that impaired drivers are everywhere throughout our city on every street at any time of day. It’s not just after the bars close. It’s on Circle Drive.”
Last week, the RCMP was marking National Impaired Driving Prevention week highlighting high drivers on Saskatchewan roads.
While Saskatchewan’s drunk driving history is well-documented, officers are starting to see more impairment from cannabis than alcohol.
Cpl. Brian Ferguson, Saskatchewan RCMP’s drug recognition evaluator training coordinator, said 289 drivers were taken off the road by RCMP and Combined Traffic Services Saskatchewan officers for suspected driving while impaired by the drug in 2021.
Nationwide legalization in 2018 introduced a new era of enforcement for officers. Now, an array of tools is available to detect THC in a person’s body as opposed to relying on visual signs prior to legalization.
“Legalization has now made it much more mainstream,” Ferguson said. “Before it was maybe less common for them to be looking for that drug impairment.”
In roughly 10 minutes, the Dräger 5000 can detect if cannabis or cocaine is in a person’s system via an oral fluid sample. Tools like the Dräger coupled with legislation in December 2018 allowing police to breath-test any driver without needing suspicion of drinking has further increased enforcement.
Some RCMP officers are trained to use a 12-step process that determines whether a driver is impaired and if so, by what category of drug. These 12 steps include an interview, looking at a person’s pupils or a blood pressure examination to see if a person is impaired.
According to an RCMP news release, if someone is convicted of driving while impaired by a drug, they will have a criminal record, pay a minimum fine of $1,000 and have their licence suspended for a minimum of one year. Fines are higher and suspensions are longer for subsequent offences. If an officer detects that a driver has recently used cannabis — regardless if it has impaired them or not — their driver’s license will be suspended and the vehicle they are driving impounded for 72 hours.
Part of the concern from police is the lack of awareness surrounding the zero-tolerance policy.
“Anecdotally, I can say that the message is not getting through. We have seen cannabis overtake alcohol as the primary drug we deal with in our check stops,” Saskatoon police Staff Sgt. Patrick Barbar said after a weekend check stop.
Two weeks ago, nine out of 12 drivers who lost their vehicles during a check stop were from cannabis impairment. Just a few days ago, a weekend check stop blitz in coordination with MADD yielded six of seven suspensions from cannabis impairment.
“I think people are still under the impression that it’s not a big deal. And I don’t know that a lot of people even know that there are penalties in place for driving after using cannabis. So I think we still have a lot of work to do to get the message out there that cannabis and driving is just like alcohol and driving. You need to avoid it at all costs,” Barbar said.
No officer in Saskatchewan will be able to tell a person when they can drive after consuming cannabis. Since each person has a varying level of tolerance, police can’t say if a person is safe to drive four hours after smoking a joint, or 12 hours after a few puffs.
Barbar and Ferguson said they often speak to drivers who weren’t feeling the effects for some time after smoking, but to their bemusement gave a positive sample during a roadside test.
“So certainly I think some people are under the misconception that it’s one or two hours and that’s not the case. Erring on the side of caution, we’re telling people anywhere from 12 to 24 hours,” Barbar said.
Edibles are another point of caution from police agencies that have put some drivers in bad situations.
“It has a much more dramatic effect and much more long-lasting effect,” Ferguson said. “Just understand that the effects of it can be delayed, and as they start to affect you, you need to be aware that this may affect me for hours. Also, you have to plan yourself accordingly.”