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Don't smoke and drive . . . anymore

Calgary Police Service introduces new drug recognition experts

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If you're ideal summer day consists of inhaling the cough-inducing smoke of a lovingly rolled, green-filled joint as you cruise down the Red Mile to the tune of "Low Rider," then Calgary Police Services would like you to meet their new drug recognition officers. These new officers intend to take that not-a-care-in-the-world attitude out of driving high. Specifically, the task of the no doubt keenly astute "drug recognizers" is to crackdown on individuals driving under the influence of any impairing substance.

The want to keep roads safer by removing impaired drivers is nothing new and we are all well accustomed to seeing police Checkstops popping up on long weekends and other alcohol-focused dates. The Breathalyzer, invented in 1954, is able to give police the necessary empirical evidence to keep drunk drivers off the roads, but there is, as of yet, no surefire way to test for other substances that could impair drivers.

The drug recognition officers are intended to provide Calgary Police Services with the necessary tools to keep the public safe from those high-but-not-drunk drivers who terrorize our roads. The new officers will have the authority to demand blood, urine or saliva samples as a means to test for substances affecting a driver. On top of this, all officers will be able to demand that a driver take a roadside co-ordination test, forcing the motorist to perform such tasks as walking a straight line or standing on one leg while touching their nose.

The intent of these laws is noble, they seek to keep citizens safe by eliminating as many factors that contribute to motor vehicle accidents as possible. The more aware drivers are behind the wheel, the safer they and those around them will be. The authority of the new officers falls under criticism, however, in the problematic nature of testing for substances such as marijuana or prescription drugs.

The deal is something like this: if you're pulled over and impairment is expected a breath test will be administered. Once alcohol is ruled out a co-ordination test could be conducted. If your co-ordination was deemed to be sub-par, you would then be taken to a police detachment where a drug recognition officer would perform up to 11 different tests and then, only after determining the type of drug present, would acquire the necessary fluid samples to test for the drug's presence. If the tests come back from the lab positive, you get charged with impaired driving, if they come back negative you're in the clear.

But marijuana can stay in the system for three to 30 days, making the testing of body fluid highly suspect. Likewise, someone taking painkillers earlier in the week might have these drugs show up in an analysis of their body fluids later.

In defence of this accusation, the police suggest that the same is true for alcohol consumption. If an individual drank heavily two days ago the alcohol could still show up on a Breathalyzer test, but it would be below the level for impairment. The task in front of the police is then to determine the proper levels to look for when testing different drugs.

While the safety of our roads is an undeniably important subject, so too are the rights of the drivers on those roads. The dangerously subjective nature of a co-ordination test could treat innocent drivers to the inconvenience of sitting through some uncomfortable tests with a drug recognition officer. At the same time, when the possibility of injury is present because of impairment, placing our faith in someone's subjective analysis is favourable to someone's death. Even with the possible flaws in the system, a procedure that motivates alert and focused drivers is one that should be encouraged.

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