Every holiday season, volunteers for Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada (MADD) distribute red ribbons to remind us of the lives lost due to impaired driving. Look around over the next few weeks, and you’ll find them on key chains, car antennas and pinned to jackets.
This year, though, the Red Ribbon campaign takes on a greater resonance.
A bill that will provide our justice system with significant new powers designed to deter impaired driving — both for alcohol and for a broad range of drugs, including cannabis — is now before the Senate.
This is an important bill, and one that deserves a thorough review. But it is crucial that senators do not confuse Bill C-46 with another bill before us pertaining to drugs — the one to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
Doing so could risk delaying the new impaired driving laws, and that would be a disservice to all those volunteers — many of whom have lost love ones to impaired driving — and to Canadians generally.
The new powers to combat impaired driving are needed in Canada, regardless of the status of cannabis legalization.
Consider the facts. Based on 2013 statistics provided by MADD Canada, 1,451 automotive crash deaths involved drugs and/or alcohol. Of those, almost half were found to have involved drugs, and another 25 per cent involved both drugs and alcohol.
People are getting high and they are driving. They have been doing so well before the current proposal to legalize cannabis, and they will do so afterward.
But until recently, police have lacked the tools to easily determine whether drivers have drugs in their system, and our laws have not included clear rules that prohibit and punish driving after having consumed drugs.
To help combat this, Bill C-46 would allow police to demand that a driver suspected of having a drug in their body provide a saliva sample. A positive reading could then lead an officer to conclude that there are reasonable grounds to demand a further blood sample to establish whether the individual has exceeded the limit of the amount of drug that can be present in their system and still drive. Police would not just be looking for the presence of cannabis, but also for drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and LSD.
The bill would also get a stronger handle on drunk driving by increasing penalties for offenders caught with alcohol levels exceeding the pre-determined limits. Among other measures, the bill would authorize police to demand breath samples even if they don’t necessarily suspect that the driver has ingested alcohol.
To be sure, there are several issues the Senate needs to have a close look at.
For example, exceeding the limit of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) in the blood does not necessarily establish a clear link with a degree of impairment. We need to review the legislation carefully to ensure that it respects Canadians’ rights under the Charter.
Even trickier, perhaps, is the matter of individuals who use marijuana for medicinal purposes. THC can remain in a person’s body for days and even weeks after it was last consumed. This could require a medicinal user to make the difficult choice to forgo driving, or require them to stop their consumption well before operating a vehicle. This is a potential difficulty the Senate needs to look at carefully. Do we consider some kind of an exception for medical users?
These are the kinds of constitutional and other questions that need to be taken up.
But one thing is clear. Bill C-46 stands on its own as a necessary step toward reducing the devastation caused by impaired driving. It should not be confused with or delayed by cannabis legalization. Doing so would be irresponsible and, frankly, an insult to all the victims who are memorialized by those red ribbons.
Senator Marc Gold represents the Quebec district of Stadacona. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs and is deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.