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Canada Ontario plans tougher penalties for drug-impaired drivers

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne talks to media after appearing as a witness in the Election Act bribery trial in Sudbury, Ont., on Sept. 13, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario plans to introduce tough new penalties for drug-impaired drivers ahead of the legalization of recreational marijuana next July.

Premier Kathleen Wynne said Monday there will be zero tolerance for youths aged 21 and under, novice drivers and all commercial drivers in Ontario who have a detectable presence of drugs or alcohol in their system. The province will also increase all monetary penalties and suspensions for impaired driving offences.

The announcement comes a little over a week after Ontario's Liberal government announced its plan to distribute and sell recreational cannabis in as many as 150 dedicated stores run by the province's liquor control board and set the legal age to buy the drug at 19.

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"We had a goal to balance the new freedom that people in Ontario will have to use cannabis recreationally with everyone's expectation that it will be managed responsibly," Wynne said.

Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca said the proposed changes would align both drug and alcohol impaired driving offences under the law in Ontario. The new legislation would also increase penalties for drivers who fail or refuse to provide a sample for a roadside test, he added.

"Let me be clear," Del Duca said. "Driving while impaired is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. We believe that these measures are an important step towards ensuring that Ontario's roads remain safe after July 1st, 2018."

Under the proposed rules, young or novice drivers (with a G1, G2, M1 or M2 licence) would face licence suspensions from three to 30 days and fines from $250 to $450 if they have drugs or alcohol in their system. Currently, young and novice drivers face a 24-hour licence suspension and no monetary penalty.

Commercial drivers would face a three-day licence suspension and fines from $250 to $450 if they have drugs or alcohol in their system. Currently, there are no targeted suspension or monetary fines for commercial drivers under the province's impaired driving laws.

Overall, under the proposed changes any driver who registers a warn or fail on a roadside screening device would be fined anywhere from $250 to $450. The current fine is $198. Drivers who refuse to provide a sample for a roadside test face a $550 fine under the proposed law, up from the current $198 fine.

The tougher Ontario penalties would be in addition to current federal criminal charges, suspensions and possible jail time for impaired driving. The federal government is expected to approve an oral fluid screening device for police to use to detect drug-impaired drivers in the coming months.

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Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada CEO Andrew Murie praised the province for its proposed laws and said he hopes other provinces follow Ontario's example. The group has been calling for a zero tolerance approach to drivers who get behind the wheel with any drugs or alcohol in their system.

"We know that model of good legislation, education and enforcement works," he said. "This is a big first step. It's not going to be the last step."

Progressive Conservative transportation critic Michael Harris said the new penalties don't address the increased resources police will need to deal with drug-impaired driving.

"The Wynne Liberals have either underestimated, or are wilfully blind to how significant the needs of our police forces will be," Harris said in a statement.

Last week, Officials from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Ontario Provincial Police and the Saskatoon Police Service told a federal committee they need more time to properly train officers about the new cannabis laws and more than double the number of police officers who are certified to conduct roadside drug-impaired driving testing.

If the government doesn't postpone the start date there will be a window of six months to a year when police aren't fully ready, which will allow organized crime to flourish, said OPP deputy commissioner for investigations and organized crime Rick Barnum.

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Wynne said the province will host a fall summit with policing agencies, public health groups and other stakeholders to discuss Ontario's marijuana legalization framework.

Wynne also appeared to leave the door open to expanding the sale of recreational marijuana if efforts to eliminate the black market are unsuccessful.

"If that means that ultimately we need more ways of making cannabis available in a safe and responsible way in order to tackle that illegal market then that's something that we will look at," she said.

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