Here’s how Ottawa police will test drugged drivers

The Ottawa Sun

With marijuana legalization just days away, Ottawa police have not only stepped up training efforts for officers to detect drugged driving but are also warning that if you’ve consumed weed, do not drive.

No police force in the country has conducted any “green” workshops because they’ve been preparing for a new reality that just isn’t legalized yet.  

Training for Ottawa police officers, however, has included a trip to Phoenix’s Maricopa County jail, where inmates coming into the jail, can voluntarily agree to be assessed for any drug impairment, giving officers the real-life conditions they might see on the road come Wednesday, without breaking any laws that are currently on the books to get willing test subjects.

“We’ve been planning for this,” said Sgt. John Kiss, who oversees impaired driving countermeasures at the Ottawa Police Service. “We knew this was coming a long time ago. We’ve been planning for this since the early 2000s.”

The Ottawa police have been training what’s called “drug recognition experts” since before the Criminal Code made the testing a compulsory component of drug-impaired driving cases. There are about 25 experts force-wide.

In 2012, it was the first major police service to demand that every new officer be trained to administer a standard field sobriety test. Nearly 40 per cent of front-line cops are trained in roadside screening.

Right now, marijuana only forms about 20 per cent of Ottawa police impaired driving investigations, but in those cases there are usually other forms of impairment, too. Straightforward cannabis-impaired investigations are “few and far between,” Kiss said, but the force fully expects those cases to go up come Oct. 17.

“It only follows to reason,” Kiss said.

Of course there will be cannabis users who have long smoked illegally who might have some understanding of how their body will function on marijuana. But the expectation is that there will also be the uninitiated suburban mom and dad who decide to get high maybe for the first time because it will be legal, who then also decide to drive while high for the first time. Police can’t stress enough that, in either case, just stay off the roads.

“Here’s the big danger with cannabis,” Kiss said. “It affects different people in different ways. There’s different concentrations, how fast you take it in, your own metabolism (how long you’ve been smoking and your own individual tolerance as a result) — you can be both physically impaired by cannabis and psychologically impaired.”

Police forces and researchers under the framework of long-standing legalization have spent time and money understanding alcohol for generations.

“Alcohol is so simple. Alcohol is linear. Alcohol is well-understood, well-researched and affects everybody the same way,” Kiss said. “They’ve set the per-se limits on what it is that makes you functionally impaired by alcohol. We don’t have that luxury with cannabis. It’s literally the unknown new frontier.”

The culture knows how to live with alcohol — and though it would never be advised by police, people generally accept that one drink an hour affords the body enough time to eliminate the alcohol from its system and it’s a general guide for at least starting to think about getting behind the wheel.

But with legal weed, that wider understanding just isn’t there yet.

Police are putting it simply: if you smoke, don’t drive. But if you do, police are trained to detect it and will prosecute it. Here’s how they will be testing you.


Police will need suspicion of impaired driving to first administer any testing, in exactly the same way they’ve been policing drunk driving for years. That suspicion could be based on anything from seeing a driver swerving through lanes, inexplicably stopped at a green light or blasting through a stop sign. Police can also pull a driver over for a routine traffic infraction, not suspect impairment, and find that the driver has slurred speech or the smell the odour of marijuana on their person or clothes. Glazed eyes, confusion, and other aspects of a person’s demeanour can all give police the necessary legal basis to form a suspicion.


“It still remains the only viable way to detect drug-impaired drivers on the road,” Kiss said.

While the federal government has approving saliva screening devices, the technology is still evolving, so Ottawa police, like many other forces across the country, will wait before sinking any money into the devices. The force is also concerned that the device won’t work properly in colder temperatures.

Kiss calls the combination of roadside testing and then an evaluation by a drug recognition expert the “tried and true” way of detecting and prosecuting drug-impaired drivers.

The series of three roadside tests administered will not change regardless of whatever drug is suspected to have been used to cause impairment.

Officers will (1) check to see if a driver’s eyes involuntarily jerk while following an object, (2) monitor whether a driver can walk nine heel-to-toe steps while counting them and then turn, (3) test if a driver can stand on one leg and count to 30. The latter two tests are meant to test for balance, ability to follow instructions and short-term memory.

Police will gauge whether someone does “poorly” — which is the terminology for a failure essentially, and if so the driver will be arrested for impaired driving.


Once the impaired driver is in police custody, a drug recognition expert will then evaluate the driver to determine what class of drugs has caused impairment. This officer will administer a 12-step test, which includes a series of divided attention tests, an eye exam (eyelid tremors are a giveaway for weed impairment), and conducting clinical tests such as checking blood pressure, body temperature and pulse. The driver will also be required to provide a urine sample.

From there, these officers will be able to tell whether someone is impaired by seven different classifications of drugs: stimulants, cannabis, hallucinogens, narcotics, depressants, inhalants, or dissociative anesthetics.


New cannabis legislation also means that police who suspect impairment by marijuana can demand a blood sample from any driver. The criminal offences that a driver can be charged with are all based on blood drug concentration.


The legislation has set out per-se limits in creating new criminal offences for cannabis impaired driving. The penalties range from a fine to jail time. Any one who is driving while having more than two nanograms of THC in their blood is guilty of a summary offence and must pay a $1,000 fine. You won’t have a criminal record, but you will have a criminal conviction.

Any one who is driving with more than five ng of THC in their blood is either guilty of a summary offence and could face the same consequences as above or the prosecutor could choose to proceed by indictment. If that happens, and there is a conviction, the driver will have a criminal record and could face jail time. It’s the equivalent of a drunk driving conviction.

If you are driving with more than 2.5 ng of THC and more than 50 mg of alcohol in your blood, you are also guilty of an indictable offence punishable by a jail sentence.

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