Does Legal Pot = Bigger Police Budget?

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I’ve got to start going to the CBRM board of police commissioners meetings.

Thanks to Tom Ayers’ LocalExpress report, I got to experience Tuesday’s meeting secondhand and it was almost as good as being there — I could just about hear the excitement in Police Chief Peter McIsaac’s voice as he warned commissioners that legalizing marijuana was going to cost the CBRM a lot of money.

That $25 million budget the cops now have? Man, that’s just not gonna cut it.

 

DREs

McIsaac warned police commissioners his force would need equipment and training to handle the spike in drug-impaired-driving charges that might happen when pot is legalized:

The Cape Breton police service already has four officers trained in drug impairment recognition, which McIsaac said cost a lot of money, because the only training available is in Phoenix, Ariz.

However, he said, the service could need up to a dozen officers specially trained to recognize and test for drug impairment, and the RCMP are testing roadside screening devices that police will also need to buy.

The only police training available for drug impairment recognition in North America is in Phoenix, Arizona? Really? The website for the International Association for Chiefs of Police (IACP) , which provides the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) training, shows training sessions across the United States (including one in Maine) in 2017.

That training, wherever it happens, involves:

  1. DRE Pre-School (16 hours)
  2. DRE School (56 hours)
  3. DRE Field Certification (Approximately 40-60 hrs)

And here’s what participants learn how to do:

Source: RCMP http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/ts-sr/dree-eert-eng.htm

 

 

Source: RCMP http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/ts-sr/dree-eert-eng.htm

Source: RCMP 

Scott Newman, a spokesperson for the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association of Manitoba, told the CBC in April 2017 that defense lawyers have managed to “poke holes” in the roadside evaluations performed by DREs:

“It doesn’t seem to be terribly effective. It’s based on observations made by the officer,” said Newman.

But the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a DRE’s opinion “can be admitted as expert evidence at trial without first submitting to a voir dire, or preliminary examination of the evidence.”

That, legal analyst Edward Prutschi told CTV, means that “DREs can essentially avoid being subject to attacks on their credibility by defence lawyers in a voir dire scenario.”

So, they’ve got that going for them.

 

Notoriously unreliable

The DREs’ “expertise” notwithstanding, determining whether a driver is impaired by marijuana ultimately involves toxicology tests — that saliva test mentioned earlier, which can lead to further tests, like blood tests, all of which are controversial.

Saliva tests, for example, are notoriously unreliable, according to Newman:

The saliva test doesn’t really tell you a lot because the effects of marijuana can stay in the system of anyone up to 30 days.

For the record, the “roadside screening devices” being tested by the RCMP — the ones Chief McIsaac says the CBRM will have to buy — are saliva-testing devices. As LocalExpress reported:

The devices can detect the presence of drugs, including the active ingredient in marijuana, but they don’t measure impairment, said McIsaac. That means officers will need to do further, time-consuming investigation and conduct blood samples before charges can be laid.

McIsaac also stressed to police commissioners how expensive those tests are:

I can tell you it’s very expensive. Right now, the federal government only pays for a portion of the cost … and I can tell you that at the national level, we’re asking for funding and for this federal government to provide that, because it’s going to become an issue of public safety concern.

What he didn’t stress was how unreliable blood tests are. As the CBC explained:

Unlike alcohol, people metabolize THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects] at different rates, so impairment can vary widely from person to person making it hard to determine if a person is impaired solely based on THC levels. That’s why you’ll never see a chart that tells you how many joints or brownies is too many to have had before getting behind the wheel.

These tests have been challenged in courts. In some cases, people have claimed to have smoked days before their blood test registered the presence of THC and well past any driving impairment. The science is still unclear.

According to the CBC:

Canadian courts have found drug impairment tests untrustworthy and a poor indicator of impairment.

That’s why out of 50,000 charges laid each year for drunk driving in Canada, fewer than 1,000 are for drug impairments.

Is it just me, or are these issues that should be discussed before we spend any money on further DRE training and roadside saliva testers?

 

Savings?

And is it really reasonable to look at only one side of the ledger when it comes to legalization? McIsaac not only sounded the alarm about the expense of toxicological tests, he warned about policing costs:

I can tell you, as chief of police in this jurisdiction here, it concerns me in other areas, too, because when uptake happens … I’m going to have more people tied up that are not on the streets, doing evaluation tests, to the point where we may be coming back to this council asking for an increase in officer funds.

First, the CBRM already has more police officers than it needs and despite falling crime rates and an aging (and shrinking) population, it hired eight new officers between 1 February 2017 and 31 May 2017 to “maintain” the force’s “complement of officers.” That complement, as of 2015, was 201.

And second, won’t legalizing pot also free up some officers? The ones who are busy now busting people for possession? Something McIsaac says they’ll be doing right up until legalization eve:

The laws are on the books right now and we don’t have any other option. If someone is in possession of marijuana, or a certain amount of over 30 grams for trafficking … yeah, it’s business as usual.

Why didn’t McIsaac say anything about possible savings associated with marijuana legalization? (JK! What self-respecting police chief would suggest he needs less money?)

 

Municipal strategy

The federal government is dumping the details of legalization into the laps of the provinces and here in Nova Scotia, as Jennifer Henderson pointed out in The Halifax Examiner back in May (paywall), none of the three main political parties contesting the recent election had a plan to deal with it.

It will be hard for the CBRM to prepare for marijuana regulation until it knows what marijuana regulation looks like, but it should start thinking about it and not simply leave it up to the police because, as you can see, the immediate reaction from the police is “We need more money,” followed swiftly by, “We will probably need more police.”

This, even though McIsaac himself admits he doesn’t know if there will be an upswing in pot consumption following legalization or if such an upswing will result in more people consuming pot and driving:

We’re not sure what the uptake is going to be. Just speaking from a rational point of view, you suspect that we’re going to have more incidents and, for me, I think four (drug-recognition trained) officers is not going to be enough to deal with this.

And yet, those four DREs are apparently enough to deal with what we’re all encouraged to think of as an “opioid epidemic” (and opioids, like other so-called “psychoactive” drugs — think Xanax — are not exactly driving aids), not to mention all the pot-smoking and illegal drug use that is happening already. (And do I really have to point out that it’s distracted driving and speed that cause the most fatal accidents on our highways?)

What it boils down to is that pot legalization will (rather amusingly) require sober discussion and that discussion must involve voices other than the police chief’s.

 

Featured image: Cannabis sativa by Bogdan, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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