Policing Marijuana

Canada is decriminalizing marijuana next year. As of July 1 the entire country can get stoned at will, with drugs purchased in government sanctioned shops. I’m not convinced it is sound policy.

Indeed, I think the decision was based not on science, not on evidence of social harm or benefit, but rather on a calculated appeal to a segment of the voting population. This is a promise the government needs to keep, it having broken so many other election promises. Maybe if everyone is stoned they won’t notice the burgeoning national debt.

The legislation hasn’t passed yet, and there are many questions still unanswered as to the implementation of this new policy, but we aren’t going to delve into those today. I’m not going to give the government free advice – they can pay for my expertise if they feel it is necessary (I’m betting they don’t feel it is.)

I did find it interesting though that at recent Parliamentary hearings regarding the new marijuana legislation various police organizations called on the government to delay implementation. They can’t be ready, or so they say, when the changes come in on July 1.

This surprises me. After all, possession of marijuana will no longer be a criminal offence. I would think this is less work for the police, so why do they need to prepare? Yes, there will still be rules about how many plants you can grow in your home, and possession, and use by minors, but to me that seems pretty straightforward and simple to absorb. It’s not like police will be conducting searches without just cause (I hope). If the rules are clear, the policing should be simple.

Apparently though there are concerns about marijuana use and drivers (surprise!). There is as yet no approved roadside screening device as is used to detect too much alcohol in a driver’s system. As a lay person I wonder how much that matters.

Canada’s Criminal Code has two charges that can be levied against drivers suspected of being under the influence of alcohol. One, the one they use the roadside device for, makes it an offence to have a blood alcohol level above a certain limit. They don’t yet have something like that for marijuana. Indeed, as I understand it, there is no scientific consensus as to what such a number would look like for marijuana.

The second charge though is a simple one; impaired driving. In the judgement of the officer, the driver is unfit to operate a vehicle. There are simple tests (coordination and cognitive) and if you fail those you are charged. It is a broad statute that covers not only alcohol and marijuana but also other factors such as fatigue. Of course it is more time consuming for the police than simply asking the driver to blow into a machine. Usually someone charged with driving under the influence is charged with both offenses, which covers police if there is a problem with the roadside device. If there is a conviction on one charge the second one is withdrawn.

July 1 is coming fast, and I don’t think the government can afford the political embarrassment of a delay on legalized pot. That means the police are just going to have to enforce the law.

They will have had more than a year to get ready. Certainly that should be enough time. If it isn’t, and there is chaos on the roads, at least they can say it isn’t their fault.


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