The passage of historic legislation to legalize marijuana in Canada has dominated the political and media agenda this week.
At this point, many know the key details: it is not yet legal to light up but will be on October 17, 2018.
But a second piece of legislation related to the legalization of marijuana, C-46, also passed this week and received royal assent earlier Thursday morning.
It had been the subject of strong debate in the House of Commons and Senate over new powers it will give police to stop drivers for mandatory alcohol screening without needing reasonable suspicion of impairment, as well as the creation of three new impaired driving offences.
With summer vacation and road-trip season upon us, what will the new laws mean for Canadian drivers?
Here’s what you need to know.
What does C-46 actually do?
Think of the bill as a companion to the legislation legalizing pot.
The government has billed it as a way to give police greater powers to prevent impaired driving, both when it comes to alcohol and drugs.
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The bill is split into two parts.
Part 1 creates three new offences for driving under the influence of various amounts of drugs, including marijuana, and sets out legal limits for how much can be present in a driver’s blood. It also requires individuals not to drive within two hours of being over the legal limits.
Part 1 also allows police to conduct tests to determine if a driver is on drugs using “approved drug screening equipment.”
These come in the form of a saliva test that can be administered by police if they have reasonable grounds to stop a driver they suspect of being impaired.
Part 2 of the law raises the maximum penalty for impaired driving from five to 10 years for a first-time indictment of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle.
It also reclassifies impaired-driving offences as “serious criminality” rather than “ordinary criminality.”
Most controversially, Part 2 also gives police the power to perform mandatory alcohol screening on drivers without needing reasonable grounds to suspect that driver may be impaired.
Why are some people concerned?
Right now, police need what’s known as reasonable suspicion that someone is impaired before they can demand a breath sample.
That reasonable suspicion could be based on factors such as erratic driving, the smell of booze on a driver’s breath, visible alcohol containers in the cabin of the car, or visible signs of impairment such as slurred speech or inability to focus their eyes.
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Those are often assessed during the familiar process of roadside checkpoints.
But under C-46, police do not need to have reasonable grounds to suspect impairment.
They will be able to demand a breath sample from any driver at any time, and critics including the Criminal Lawyers’ Association have warned that is unconstitutional and will led to police discriminating against drivers of colour.
“Bill C-46 amounts to carding while in a car,” wrote the group in a submission to the Senate committee that studied the bill.
“It will be inevitably disproportionally employed against minority or marginalized communities.”
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Black Canadians are already routinely subjected to the discriminatory process of carding and young black Canadians are stopped, searched and taken to police stations for processing at double the rate of young white Canadians.
Also, classifying impaired-driving offences as “serious criminality” rather than “ordinary criminality” creates what immigrant-support advocates have characterized as an unequal administration of justice.
What that means is that foreign students, workers, visitors and permanent residents could lose their status in Canada upon a first conviction and face deportation, something the Canadian Bar Association warned could increase litigation as those facing revocation of their status challenge the law.
Canadian citizens, in contrast, could receive just a fine.
What should I expect this summer?
While the legalization of marijuana is delayed until Oct. 17 to give provinces more time to get ready, Part 1 of C-46 will roll out this summer.
It received royal assent on Thursday morning.
That means police will have the power to use new tools to test for drug-impaired driving in time for the busy summer vacation season.
Anyone found to be driving while impaired by drugs or within two hours of being over the legal limit can be charged.
However, Part 2 of the bill will not come into force for another 180 days.
That means drivers will not have to submit to mandatory alcohol screenings until the busy Christmas season.
Failure to comply is still considered a crime.
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