Is Northern Ontario ready for legal marijuana?

Safeguards being developed

Canada is committed to making marijuana legal by July 1, 2018 and that means that police, public health, workplace safety groups and educational institutions are scrambling to have procedures in place to meet all possible repercussions that may arise.

TheONE will look at what  public officials are doing to be ready. Our first in a series of five or more articles will examine how police are preparing. We will then examine what public health units, workplaces and schools.

Modeled on LCBO

In September, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi introduced the Ontario governments plan for marketing marijuana in Ontario through outlets modeled on the LCBO.

“We’ve heard people across Ontario are anxious about the federal legalization of cannabis,” Naqvi said at a media conference to explain the Ontario plan. “The province is moving forward with a safe and sensible approach to legalization that will ensure we can keep our communities and roads safe, promote public health and harm reduction, and protect Ontario’s young people.”

Ontario will make it legal for residents 19 or older to purchase marijuana at separate retail outlets or through a website run by the LCBO that should be ready for business by next July 2018.

Like alcohol, consumption of legal marijuana will not be allowed in public spaces, workplaces, and should be confined to private residences, Naqvi said.

Possibility of marijuana lounges

Naqvi did say that, like liquor lounges, the government will explore the possibility of allowing marijuana-licensed establishments in the future. The province expects to have 150 stores operational across the province by 2020, with the first 40 stores opening next summer. Those stores will only sell marijuana and not alcohol.

Impaired driving 

Northern Ontario Chiefs of Police have questions, plenty of questions as they prepare. First and foremost, police agencies are concerned about the impact of increased marijuana use will have on impaired driving.

“Our concerns are first regarding impaired driving, what are we being given as far as financing and equipment that is going to enable us to continue to enforce impaired driving related to marijuana,” said North Bay police chief Shawn Devine, noting that roadside testing to determine whether someone is impaired from pot use is still in the development stages.

Police chiefs like Devine are confident that they will be prepared to meet the challenge of the changes to the marijuana legislation.

“Unfortunately, a lot of it will come down to costs, whether that’s new training for our officers or equipment,” Devine said.

Safety in the workplace

Timmins Police Chief John Gauthier also raised the impact of marijuana on the safety in the workplace.

“This is a dynamic that’s new to us, where it actually impacts potential employees of mine and of the police service,” said Timmins Police Chief John Gauthier at a seminar on the impending legalization of marijuana held in Timmins in August.

“I just waned to know how it impacted the workplace and how we had to prepare in light of the legislation that’s going to be changed,” he said.

Road-side testing

As well, Gauthier is still waiting the development of tools and techniques for measuring a drivers’ impairment levels.

“No one has come up with that. We’re still waiting for the federal government and scientists to actually come up with something that would be an appropriate measure, like roadside screening devices and so on,” he said.

Alcohol deemed more of a problem

In Thunder Bay, Mayor Ken Hobbs a former police officer with over 30 years of service said he fully supports the legalization of marijuana.

“We know that cannabis is used for medicinal purposes now, and next year we’re going to see legislation that legalizes marijuana, so, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Hobbs.

“Alcohol, to my mind, is more severe. We should be looking at that. I never went to one violent crime scene where marijuana was used. Most of them involved alcohol,” said Hobbs.

Colorado spike in vehicle fatalities

Managing impaired driving from marijuana remains the biggest issue. Based on statistics obtained from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), marijuana-involved impaired driving fatalities are on the rise. Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012. Last year, Colorado saw its highest number of vehicle crash fatalities in 12 years. Of the 608 fatalities recorded, 125 were marijuana-related.

Ontario Chiefs of Police at their board of directors meeting in Kingston in September acknowledged the challenge of detecting drivers who are high on Ontario roads once the drug is legalized.

“How do we balance all the demands on policing to make sure that we continue to provide safe communities, levels of service for everyday demands on policing but understand what the future is holding for us,” said Bryan Larkin, chief of the Waterloo Regional Police Service and president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.

Larkin said the association likes the regulatory framework behind the legislation, and graduated licensing that calls for zero amounts of marijuana in a driver’s system if they’re under 21 years old is good, but they’re looking for zero tolerance for anyone driving high, and testing someone for drugs in their system is more difficult that detecting alcohol.

“We have certified devices [for alcohol detection], we have instruments that can measure all those pieces, so we feel very confident in that. We don’t have the same confidence in drug detection,” he said.

Without a scientific tool to detect how impaired by drugs someone is, more officers need to be trained as drug recognition experts (DREs). Larkin said there is a saliva-based test for the presence of cannabis, but he relies on DREs for the next level of testing. Larkin said they need to double the number of officers who are trained in drug detection.

Slow down on legalization

Kevin Sabet, president of the U.S.-based organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who had a clear message for federal legislative committee looking to meet the July 1, 2018 date: “slow down.”

“The only people that benefit from speed in this issue are the business people that are really waiting to get rich. There is no benefit to going fast on this issue at all,” said Sabet. “I understand it may be too late, but I still think that forgoing legalization in favour of reducing criminal sanctions and deterring marijuana use is the best way from public health perspective.”

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Frank Giorno

Frank Giorno lives in Timmins, Ontario. He is a graduate of York University (Honors B.A Political Science) and Ryerson School of Journalism (B.A. Journalism). Frank has worked as a city hall reporter for the Brandon Sun; freelanced for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. He is the past editor of and the newsletter of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers. Frank has also worked as Research Director for the Canadian Environmental Law Association; Senior Communications Advisor on Water Quality Issues for the Ministry of the Environment; Public Affairs Associate for Region of Peel Public Works; and Media Relations Officer for Toronto Public Health. In Timmins, he served as the Communications Manager for Mushkegowuk Environmental Research Centre/Five Nations Energy Project on Energy Conservation. He freelanced for Frank is a published author of essays on the internment of Italian-Canadians during World War 2, “Internee 328: Camp Petawawa” co-written with James McCreath appears in “Beyond Barbed Wire” (Guernica Editions 2012). He has published four books of poetry, My Nation is a Train...Wreck (2017, Northern Voices Publications), MoPoPoMo (2016, Northern Voices Publications), “Elvis in America,” and “Arrivederci! Plastic Covered Couch ( 2006, 2008 Lyricalmyrical Press)”.

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