Canada Reintroduces Watered Down Decrim Bill, Seeks To Drug Test Motorists

Ottawa, Ontario: Government officials reintroduced legislation this week that seeks to reduce minor marijuana possession offenses to a fine-only offense, and allow law enforcement the discretion to test motorists for the presence of illicit drugs. The two separate bills, introduced by Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, are nearly identical to legislation previously considered by Parliament this past spring.

If approved, Bill C-17 would reduce penalties on the possession and use of up to 15 grams (approximately one-half ounce) of cannabis and/or the cultivation of up to three plants to a fine-only offense. Those convicted of growing larger amounts of marijuana would face increased penalties under the proposal.

Similar Liberal Party-backed decriminalization measures failed in both 2003 and 2004. Presently, 12 US states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon – have decriminalized the possession of limited amounts marijuana for personal use.

Bill C-16, if passed by Parliament, would allow police to demand a sample of a driver’s urine or saliva “to determine whether [that] person has a drug in their body,” if the officer has “reasonable grounds” to believe the motorist is under the influence of a controlled substance. The bill further notes that a “qualified medical practitioner” may also draw blood samples from motorists in certain cases.

Similar laws in the United States have drawn sharp criticism because most standard drug tests detect only the presence of drug metabolites (inactive compounds indicative of past drug use), not illicit drugs. In the case of marijuana, metabolites can remain detectable in a person’s urine for several days or weeks after past use. The positive presence of a drug metabolite in a subject’s bodily fluid “does not indicate … recency, frequency, or amount of use, or impairment,” according to the US Department of Justice.

“While NORML supports the concept of removing drug-impaired motorists from the roadways, it is questionable whether the passage of Bill C-16 would accomplish this goal of properly identifying drivers who are under the influence,” said NORML Foundation Executive Director Allen St. Pierre. “As presently drafted, Bill C-16 runs the risk of prosecuting sober drivers who happen to have smoked marijuana several days earlier. At a minimum, this proposal should be amended so that it identifies parent drugs only. Further, it should designate per se standards scientifically correlating drug concentration levels to impairment of performance, similar to the standards already in place for drunk driving. These changes would offer a reasonable alternative to C-16’s troublesome language.”

For more information, please contact Allen St. Pierre of the NORML Foundation at (202) 483-5500.