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More MS news articles for December 2002

'I smoke marijuana constantly'

Retired lawyer tackles the law on driving under influence of drugs

Wednesday, December 11, 2002
Kelly Egan
The Ottawa Citizen

As Canada inches closer to softer marijuana laws, a retired Killaloe lawyer is asking the courts to rule on the murky issue of driving while under the influence of cannabis.

Rick Reimer intends to use an impaired driving charge to scrutinize the wobbly approach of legislators toward the use of marijuana and its impacts on daily life.

In a case that begins in a tiny courtroom tomorrow, he is both the accused and defender.

Mr. Reimer, 47, a prominent criminal lawyer in Pembroke until his retirement two years ago, uses marijuana daily to cope with the effects of multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed four years ago and, in November 2000, was granted a Health Canada exemption to use the drug for medicinal purposes.

"I smoke marijuana constantly, from morning until night," said Mr. Reimer, estimating he smokes about 10 to 12 joints a day.

On Feb. 11, he was pulled over on Highway 60 as he made his way toward Pembroke at about 11 a.m. on a clear, sunny morning that followed a fresh snowfall.

He was stopped by an OPP officer near Round Lake Centre for allegedly weaving about the road. Mr. Reimer displayed some of the classic signs of impairment: slurred voice and unsteady gait.

Those are precisely the symptoms of his disorder, he says. The smoking of marijuana, he argues, actually makes him a better driver.

"There's no doubt whatsoever that I am not impaired in any way, shape or form by marijuana smoking, any more than a tobacco smoker would be," he said yesterday.

One of the central issues in the trial promises to be the inability of police officers to assess precisely -- at the roadside or in the station -- the level of impairment caused by marijuana smoking.

Unlike the test for alcohol, there is no quick and easy method to determine levels of THC in a driver's system. And unlike alcohol, THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, stays in the body for long periods.

Mr. Reimer hopes to use the criminal trial to expose what he considers the government's hypocritical attitude toward the legal use of marijuana.

The unusual court case comes the same week Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said he intends to proceed with legislation, likely to be introduced by April, that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"If Cauchon comes down with decriminalization, you're going to see all kinds of situations where cops pull over drivers," said Mr. Reimer. "There is no way for the officer to gauge what level of THC, if any, is in the bloodstream of the driver."

Mr. Reimer said the federal government has failed to deal with these issues, just as he thinks it has bungled the matter of medicinal marijuana.

"They should have been thinking of this 20 years ago. Instead, they buried their heads in the sand and now they've been dragged kicking and screaming into it and they've been caught with their pants down."

As a defence lawyer, Mr. Reimer defended dozens, if not hundreds, of impaired drivers. He is so well-known in the justice community in Renfrew County that an out-of-county Crown, Mac Lindsay of Ottawa, was brought in to prosecute.

Mr. Lindsay declined to discuss the case in detail yesterday, except to say he would be calling the arresting officer and a toxicologist.

Proving the effect of marijuana on a driver -- at least to a criminal court standard -- has been difficult. In Eastern Ontario during the last eight years, there have been two well-known failures, blamed on holes in the Criminal Code.

In June 1999, five Kanata youths were killed in a traffic accident near Perth. The driver, a juvenile, was charged with numerous impaired-driving charges after small levels of THC were found in his blood.

The Crown pulled those charges, citing the difficulty of proving the level of impairment caused by smoking two or three joints several hours before the driver got behind the wheel.

At an Ottawa trial in 1997, it became clear that Canadian Crown attorneys are rarely successful in prosecuting cases where impairment is due to drug use only.

On July 18, 1994, a truck driver plunged a 30-tonne tractor-trailer off a Queensway exit ramp and onto the Transitway, killing two women and maiming a 10-month-old girl in a stroller. Blood tests showed the driver had THC in his blood.

Among the charges, he was hit with two counts of impaired driving causing death. At the trial, a leading RCMP forensic toxicologist said test results showed hashish or marijuana -- likely one or two joints -- were probably consumed three to five hours before the blood sample was taken.

However, the expert said she couldn't conclude the amount of THC in the blood left the driver impaired. The driver was cleared of the impaired charge, but convicted of dangerous driving causing death.

Mr. Reimer says he appreciates some of the explosive issues involved. "If the judge buys the argument and says, according to our existing laws, Reimer is innocent, then the fear is that every teenager in Canada will be driving along, completely stoned, and committing carnage on the roads.

"I don't think that's going to happen, but I can understand people being afraid of that."

The only way the Crown knows how much Mr. Reimer smoked that day is because he freely offered the information -- something he is not compelled by law to do.

"(The government's) laziness and inaction has left all kinds of people in untenable positions, including me, a Crown attorney, a judge, and the police. We're all in limbo because the government has been too cowardly to talk about the issue."

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen