Article by Timothy Sawa and Andrew Culbert, CBC News
The federal government plans to invest $81 million to train police officers to smoke out drivers impaired by pot across Canada while using a test experts say is flawed and that is being challenged in a U.S court.
An investigation by The Fifth Estate shows the tests done by police drug recognition experts (DREs) can lead to false arrests, are prone to police bias and according to one scientific expert are no better at detecting drug-impaired drivers than “flipping a coin.”
“You can’t hijack science in the name of law enforcement,” says David Rosenbloom, a clinical professor in the Department of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
“We know that with high enough concentrations [of marijuana] in the blood that driving is impaired so it’s not that we don’t need tests of impairment, it’s just that we need valid tests of impairment, and at this point in time we don’t have them.”
The DRE test is a 12-step process that involves examining a suspect’s vital signs, eyes, balance and ability to concentrate and then rendering an opinion.
For Rosenbloom, the science of the test simply is not there.
“It’s equivalent of flipping a coin, it’s 50/50 as to whether we know the person was impaired or not.”
Taxpayers ‘should be outraged’
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union in Georgia recently launched what is believed to be the first civil challenge in the U.S. on behalf of four drivers wrongfully arrested by police officers trained as drug recognition experts.
The ACLU has a warning for Canada.
“I think that Canadian police departments need to think twice about pouring millions or billions of dollars into a failed system that has not worked in the United States,” says Sean Young, legal director for the ACLU in Georgia.
“And the taxpayers of Canada should be outraged that their precious dollars are being wasted on this program that just results in more innocent people being thrown into jail.”
Drug recognition experts have been operating in Canada since the 1990s. However, Canada is set to significantly increase their numbers as marijuana is legalized.
In preparation for legal weed coming in July, Public Safety Canada recently announced it’s going to invest up to $81 million in new law enforcement training, paying to train 750 more drug recognition experts over the next five years and more than 3,000 officers to administer a shortened version of the observational test known as the Standardized Field Sobriety Test.
Canada’s minister of public safety, Ralph Goodale, declined a request to be interviewed for The Fifth Estate investigation.
In a statement, Goodale said he believes there is enough evidence to support the use of DREs, pointing to a recent review by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction that found DREs are “valid and reliable.”
That same review, however, also cautions that when it comes to detecting impairment, DREs have a “modest degree of accuracy,” between 43 and 62 per cent.
A recent report from Statistics Canada shows our system for convicting high drivers fails almost half of the time. Suspected drug-impaired drivers walk free nearly 40 per cent of the time, or twice as often as alcohol-impaired drivers.
In his statement, Goodale acknowledges more research in this area is “critical,” but is also hopeful a new saliva test in the works will help police determined if someone has recently consumed drugs.
‘I knew I was innocent’
Two Ontario drivers came face to face with the flaws in Canada’s system last year when they were arrested for impaired driving by drugs after separate car accidents.
Corinne Fardy slammed into a parked construction vehicle while she was travelling on Highway 11 near Parry Sound.
The police report into her accident, obtained by The Fifth Estate, says they found her to be “unsteady on her feet,” she “had a white coated tongue” and that she was “fumbling” and had “poor dexterity.”
She was arrested, handcuffed and put in jail. In the end, a drug recognition expert conducted the test and concluded she was impaired by drugs and charged her with the criminal offence of driving while impaired by drugs.