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More than half of P.E.I.'s impaired driving charges this year have been for cannabis

Police say that similar to alcohol, cannabis can impair a person's coordination, reaction time and the decision-making skills needed for safe driving. (David Bell/CBC - image credit)
Police say that similar to alcohol, cannabis can impair a person's coordination, reaction time and the decision-making skills needed for safe driving. (David Bell/CBC - image credit)

RCMP on P.E.I. have charged three dozen people for impaired driving so far in 2024, and alcohol wasn't the only cause of impairment. In fact, the majority of those arrests were related to cannabis use.

Nineteen of the 36 charges laid since the start of the year related to driving under the influence of cannabis.

Cpl. Gavin Moore, who speaks for the RCMP on P.E.I., said impaired drivers are stopped by both regular officers and specialized officers in the traffic unit.

Just like alcohol, cannabis can impair coordination, reaction time and decision-making skills needed for safe driving, he said.

Cpl. Gavin Moore says preventing impaired driving remains a priority for RCMP in the province.
Cpl. Gavin Moore says preventing impaired driving remains a priority for RCMP in the province.

Cpl. Gavin Moore says preventing impaired driving remains a priority for RCMP in the province. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"There may be indicators of intoxication by cannabis," Moore said. "This could be fresh smoke, this could be product, this could be watery eyes."

During the first weekend of March, four of six impaired drivers were charged for cannabis use, with all four failing a roadside test. The following weekend, P.E.I. RCMP charged two more drug-impaired drivers.

"Officers have roadside screening devices for cannabis," said Moore. "This is an instrument where the officer would make a demand and take a sample of saliva from inside the cheek of the driver."

If the test indicates a high level of THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, an officer can demand a blood test, which is what will ultimately be used as evidence of impairment.

According to the Criminal Code of Canada, the minimum threshold for cannabis impairment while driving is two nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood, with five nanograms constituting a more serious offence.

'Impaired is impaired'

In 2023, P.E.I. RCMP laid charges in 76 cannabis-impaired investigations out of a total of 230 impaired driving charges.

The drivers' method of consuming the drug varies, but Moore said most arrests involved people smoking it.

"We've had a number of training tools that have been provided to police in recent years, in particular with regards to cannabis," he said.

Karen Clinton is president of the Charlottetown and eastern P.E.I. chapters of MADD Canada, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She said whether a driver is consuming cannabis through smoking, vaping or edibles, the effect is the same.

"It really doesn't matter. At the end of the day, impaired is impaired," Clinton said.

In the P.E.I. Legislature earlier this month, Souris-Elmira MLA and trained paramedic Robin Croucher asked Justice and Public Safety Minister Bloyce Thompson how law enforcement is adapting to meet the rising threat of drug-impaired driving.

"Impaired driving continues to be a menace on our communities that too often has deadly consequences," Croucher said.

MLA Robin Croucher asked in the P.E.I. Legislature what new technology is being used to combat drug-impaired driving.
MLA Robin Croucher asked in the P.E.I. Legislature what new technology is being used to combat drug-impaired driving.

Progressive Conservative MLA Robin Croucher asked in the P.E.I. Legislature what new technology is being used to combat drug-impaired driving. (Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.)

In response, Thompson said there will be two new members added to the RCMP's Traffic Unit to focus on impaired driving across the Island, as well as a year-long anti-impaired driving campaign rather than the usual holiday season one.

But the minister said he's also looking at other ways to combat the issue.

"Throwing bigger fines, more incarceration isn't addressing the core problem," he said. "Maybe you have to take an upstream approach with education ... maybe there has to be other wrap-around services. If you're caught, maybe you go to an impaired driving boot camp or something like that."

The real issue is about harm reduction and health promotion. — Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly

Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly also indicated he'll be presenting a private members bill this session to look at investing some of the government's $25 million in revenue from liquor sales back into prevention.

"The real issue is about harm reduction and health promotion," McNeilly said. "We are failing as a province to do these two things properly and educate people."

No national guidelines

Unlike alcohol, where people can estimate their level of impairment based on how many drinks they've consumed, a driver's ability to assess impairment by cannabis can be challenging.

National guidelines say that frequency of use, method of consumption and THC levels all influence how impaired someone can be. As a result, there is no guidance to drivers about how much cannabis can be consumed before it is unsafe to drive, or how long a driver should wait to drive after consuming it.

"Unless you have a home blood test kit that you trust through and through, it's a very difficult thing to judge," Moore said. "As with alcohol, we would tell anybody if you're going to consume these products, then make alternate plans for transportation."

Various pictures from inside PEI Cannabis, one of the Islands legal cannabis retailers, including pictures of seeds and edibles. Oct 21, 2020
Various pictures from inside PEI Cannabis, one of the Islands legal cannabis retailers, including pictures of seeds and edibles. Oct 21, 2020

According to Canada's Criminal Code, the minimum threshold for cannabis impairment while driving is two nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood, while five nanograms is necessary for a more serious offence. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Clinton says like alcohol, the effects of cannabis can also change based on a person's physical size and their familiarity with the substance.

"A lot of people believe that cannabis is the 'safer' option as compared to alcohol, for example, because you're a lot calmer," said Clinton. "They think, well that means that I'm just going to drive slower or be a lot more cautious on the road."

But Clinton says because it reduces alertness, alters depth perception and impairs concentration, it can lead to an crash. She says one way people can help keep roads safer is by not posting on social media to warn potentially impaired drivers about police checkpoints.

"You may think that you're saving your friends a couple minutes of inconvenience, but you can't tell who's impaired and who's not," she said.

"When that information is made available to impaired drivers, that impaired driver continues to drive on the road in the same communities that you are driving in, that your family members are driving in."