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Is Canada ready to deal with stoned drivers?

(Maclean) Tyler Manaigre had been smoking up—that much was quickly established. He admitted to the RCMP corporal who stopped him near Steinbach, Man., that he’d had “just a little bit” of pot that night, assuring Corp. Terry Sundell that it was “like, way earlier.” But the tell-tale signs lay around the back seat of his 2012 Ford Focus: Ziploc bags bearing pot-leaf motifs; a beer can bearing a burn mark and crumpled in a fashion Sundell later described as “consistent with use as a makeshift pipe.” Manaigre, 25, had been driving cautiously that cold November night. But it turns out that a guy doing 20 km/h under the speed limit on a preacher-straight stretch of highway at 1:49 a.m. is more peculiar to Mountie eyes than someone blowing by at top speed. So, notwithstanding Manaigre’s otherwise flawless driving, Sundell flicked on the rolling lights and pulled him over. What followed is an object lesson in why precious few Canadians are convicted of cannabis-impaired driving. Sundell is what police call a drug-recognition expert (DRE) — an officer specially trained to detect and identify substances a driver has taken, thus establishing legal grounds to demand a urine or blood sample. He asked Manaigre to perform a standard roadside sobriety test — nose touches, line-walking and the like — and thought the young man performed them poorly. So he arrested Manaigre and drove him to the Steinbach detachment for the more comprehensive evaluation Sundell had just weeks earlier learned to administer. There, Manaigre, who bears passing resemblance to the actor Jonah Hill, gamely went through a battery of eye inspections, heart-rate checks, walk-and-turn tests and demands to stand on one leg while counting down 30 seconds. As the clock ticked past 3 a.m., he started to struggle. During the one-leg test, he got to “14 Mississippis” before wobbling and putting his right foot down. He couldn’t cross his eyes on request. When asked to stand on his right leg, he had to put his left foot down three times to maintain his balance.

These missteps and others convinced Sundell he had grounds to demand a urine sample, after which Manaigre came clean: in a statement to police, he admitted to smoking a little less than a half-gram of marijuana, the equivalent of two regular-sized joints, between 12:30 and 1 a.m. He’d been using a bong at his sister’s house, he said, and the buzz had been “pretty good.” Only in the back of Sundell’s police car had it worn off, he said, and even at the detachment he felt a little bit tipsy. So Sundell swore out a charge of impaired driving by drugs — an accusation buttressed a few days later when Manaigre’s urine test came back positive for cannabis. To unschooled eyes, Manaigre looked to be in trouble. Yet after hearing the evidence at a trial last year, Provincial Court Judge Cynthia Devine let him off. “I am satisfied that he consumed marijuana,” she said in a decision issued in December. “I am even satisfied that he felt the effects at some point. But I am not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that his ability to drive was impaired.” One problem with the Crown’s case: Manaigre’s driving didn’t seem all that bad. Sure he was travelling under the speed limit, the judge noted, but it wasn’t like he was all over the road. As for his poor performance on Sundell’s physical tests, the judge described the exercises as seemingly “complicated and difficult,” adding wryly: “I suspect they might well challenge the balance of many completely sober people.” Related: Canada’s real marijuana problem Here, then, is Canada’s state of readiness mere months before its era of lawfully accessible weed is supposed to begin. A man who admits to smoking marijuana an hour before driving—who shows outward signs of doing so; who tests positive for the drug; who admits he’s feeling tipsy; who has difficulty performing the physical tests designed to detect drug use — is not necessarily breaking the law.

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