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Stiffer penalties for drug-impaired drivers

More Durham police officers being trained on how to spot drivers on drugs

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New rules for drug impaired driving will see drivers face harsher penalties for getting behind the wheel while under the influence, including a $180 fine and an immediate three-day license suspension for the first offence.

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

Drivers caught behind the wheel while impaired by drugs can now expect fines and licence suspensions.

The new rules, which came into effect Oct. 2, will see drug-impaired drivers face harsher penalties, including a $180 fine and an immediate three-day licence suspension for the first occurrence. For those that do not get the message the first time, there will be a seven-day suspension for second time offenders and 30 days for the third and any other subsequent offences.

Drug impaired drivers can also face licence suspensions of up to 90 days, along with a week-long vehicle impoundment following further testing by a drug recognition expert at a police station.

For those who accumulate two or more licence suspensions, whether it is for alcohol or drugs, in a 10-year period can also expect to attend mandatory education or treatment programs, as well as having an ignition interlock device installed on their vehicle.

These new rules are good news to police officers across the province, including here in Durham Region.

“Anything that assists us to maintain public safety and keep individuals off the road that are not really abiding by the rules of the road, we’re totally for it,” says Const. Jeff Bastin, an officer with Durham police’s Traffic Services Unit.

“It makes our jobs a lot easier and…those drivers that are breaking those laws and putting themselves at risk to either themselves or others on the road, it keeps them in check and keeps them held accountable.”

Bastin says these new rules will become especially useful once marijuana becomes legalized for recreational use – something the Liberals say will come to Parliament in the spring.

“It’s better than what we had before, and they are taking steps and if this helps up, especially with the impending legalization of marijuana…I hope it acts as a deterrent for those that will partake not to drive their cars and put themselves and any others at risk,” he says.

“Whatever the law is in the future in regards to legal marijuana, whether it be through medical purposes or recreation, we hope that they don’t operate their vehicles and they adhere to the safety regulations or the warning labels on whatever drug they’re taking whether it’s prescribed, whether it’s legal or illegal.”

Catching drug-impaired drivers

So far in 2016, there have been 21 cases in Durham Region for drug-impaired driving where charges are being laid, according to Bastin, adding that the last couple of years have seen 30-plus cases.

“But that will increase as we increase our number of (drug recognition expert) officers throughout the service,” he says.

“You can only catch as many fish as you have nets or hooks in the water.”

A drug recognition expert, or DRE for short, is an officer that has been trained specifically on how to determine what, if any, drugs a suspect driver may be on. While not all officers are trained in these detection matters, Bastin adds that DRPS’ latest class of recruits has been trained in these tactics.

To determine what drugs a suspected driver may be on, the suspect is subject to a number of tests by the officer. One test is one you may have seen on TV – an officer passes a small light in front of the suspect’s eyes to see how they react.

“Depending on what they see will determine if it’s by way of alcohol or if it’s by way of drug, or if it’s a combination of both,” Bastin says.

“There’s a direct link from the brain to the eyes, and when there’s an interruption with that signal between the eyes, it will show certain effects. Certain drugs and alcohol will show…involuntary jerking of the eyes when they’re stimulated.”

Other roadside tests include having the suspect walk back and forth and stand on one leg. The signs that officers are trained to look for accurately determine impairment 96 per cent of the time, Bastin says, adding that these tests can also help point out medical issues that could have led to the driver’s actions on the road.

The next step takes place back at the station, and sees the officer take a number of vital signs from the suspect.

“No, they’re not doctors by any stretch of the imagination, but the DRE also allows us to take clinicals. Certain drugs will elevate blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, etc. Others will actually lower it,” he says.

“So based on the clinical signs, the divided attention test, everything the DRE will collect…at the end of that 12-step process, the DRE will make a determination on if it’s a certain drug or combination of drugs…and then make a demand of that person. The Criminal Code currently allows us to demand for a body fluid sample such as…urine or blood, and those are sent for a toxicology report.”

As for what Durham officers are seeing on the road, Bastin says the most common culprit behind drug-impaired driving is prescription drugs, or more specifically central nervous system depressants (CNSD).

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a CNSD are substances that slow down brain activity and are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. This drug category include benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax, which are used to treat anxiety and panic attacks, non-benzodiazepine sleep medications such as Ambien and Lunesta and barbiturates such as Mebaral and Nembutal.

“They’re usually a prescribed medication and maybe people will take one. Then they have a bad day and they start to self-medicate. They may take one and not feel quite right or off, and they end up abusing that medication and take two or three,” Bastin says.

“Some of these are tranquilizers. Someone who suffers from anxiety might take one. So some might start taking their medication, not heed the warning labels, and mix it with alcohol. Alcohol and depressants are basically in the same category – they have the same effects. So now you’ve mixed them both and you amplify the effects.”

Bastin says officers also see some drivers mixing these medications with narcotics such as fenantyl, oxycodone, heroin and codeine.

“ In some cases, people will take (the CNSD) in order to reduce the effect of the crash. They’ll have their high, they start to crash so they take an antidepressant in order to slow down the crash phase and the withdrawal symptoms until they can get their next hit of fentanyl, per se,” he says.

Bastin says that at the end of the day, while it may be one person behind the wheel breaking the rules, there are a lot more people that will be paying for the consequences.

“They’re involving not just themselves. So if they get hurt, their family has to deal with the aftermath, whether they’re maimed, hurt or worse. They have to deal with that,” he says.

“If there’s any individuals that they hit, it’s that individual plus their family. There are so many people involved when they make that decision, and we just hope they make the right ones.”