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Canada asks: can police officers smoke marijuana after legalization?

Vancouver, Ottawa, Regina and Montreal will let officers use it recreationally as Calgary introduced a zero-consumption policy

In Vancouver, officers are asked to self-evaluate their mental fitness for duty, but Toronto has yet to publicly announce a policy. Photograph: Chris Roussakis/AFP/Getty Images

In Vancouver, officers are asked to self-evaluate their mental fitness for duty, but Toronto has yet to publicly announce a policy. Photograph: Chris Roussakis/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Fri 5 Oct 2018 19.38 BST

Police in Canada want to know: can we get high?

Forces across the country are wrestling with the question of whether to determine if officers can smoke marijuana when it is legalized on 17 October.

Most cities have yet to finalize a policy on the issue, but four have already come out in favour of consumption. Vancouver, Ottawa, Regina and Montreal will all let their officers use the drug recreationally – as long as they’re fit for service.

“We don’t tell our employees they cannot drink alcohol in their own time, away from work,” the Regina police chief, Evan Bray, said in a statement, suggesting marijuana should be treated in a similar manner. In Vancouver, officers are asked to self-evaluate their mental fitness for duty.

Those drafting the policies say they are appealing to “common sense” regulations: “It’s just like any other workplace: you can’t come to work if you’re impaired by alcohol or a drug, even if the drug is prescription medicine,” Supt David Haye of the Saskatoon police told the CBC.

In contrast, Calgary is the first city to have introduced a zero-consumption policy.

“[Officers] who are qualified to use firearms and are able to be operationally deployed, as well as sworn police recruits, are prohibited from using recreational cannabis on or off duty,” said an internal memo from the Calgary police. The union representing the officers plans to fight the rule after complaints from officers.

The Canadian military has said that soldiers can ingest cannabis – but must do so at least eight hours before they report for duty.

Police in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has yet to publicly announce a policy on cannabis, but has already had to deal with high-profile officers getting high. Earlier in the year, two Toronto officers were caught consuming a cannabis-infused chocolate bar while on duty. After they began to experience hallucinations, the pair requested backup.

The two officers were suspended following an internal investigation and are now facing charges for obstruction of justice and breach of trust.

Vancouver, Ottawa, Regina and Montreal will let officers use it recreationally as Calgary introduced a zero-consumption policy

How long should police officers abstain from pot before going to work? Researchers weigh in

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Scientists don’t necessarily agree on how long cannabis could affect job performance

Twenty-eight days. That’s how long members of the RCMP and Toronto police have been ordered to abstain from smoking or vaping recreational pot before reporting for duty. Calgary police officers won’t be allowed to use cannabis at all while off the job.

Such prohibitions have sparked a growing firestorm, with the national association representing front-line officers calling the policies “offensive” and the union for Toronto cops describing the ban as “ill-contrived” and “arbitrary.”

But is demanding that Mounties and municipal police officers forego a soon-to-be legal substance for such a lengthy period justified, when there’s no similar policy governing alcohol or potentially mind-altering prescription medications?

That depends on how much a person consumes and how often, said Dr. James MacKillop, co-director of the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University.

“So if you smoke today, within a few days it will be entirely out of your system because a single instance may be longer-lasting than alcohol but it still nonetheless will be metabolized and will be excreted,” MacKillop said from Hamilton.

“If a person is a regular, frequent user, then that window gets much longer because cannabis is what’s called lipophilic, which means it’s absorbed into the body’s fat cells and then it leaches back out from the fat tissue into the bloodstream. And that’s why it’s also detectable in urine,” he said.

“So if a person’s a heavy user, it may indeed be detectable for up to a month.”

MacKillop said a number of studies provide evidence of lingering effects of cannabis, including one that found reductions in cognitive performance in active pot users compared to non-users, which returned to normal levels with protracted abstinence.

“It’s not clear that any of those chronic effects on cognition persist after a person stops, but a 28-day washout period would be expected to eliminate virtually all of the cognitive consequences,” he said.

“That’s a high bar, but optimal performance from the police or the military or airline pilots or other people in highly safety-sensitive jobs is very desirable. So it’s hard for me to disagree with policies that prioritize safety.”

‘Super cautious’

However, Rielle Capler, a researcher with the B.C. Centre On Substance Use, considers such lengthy periods of pre-work abstinence unreasonable based on how long the active psychoactive component of cannabis and breakdown products known as metabolites can affect the brain.

“While the metabolites might still be present in the urine or blood that long, there is no connection to actual impairment,” she said Friday from Vancouver.

“Impairment with cannabis depends on the mode of use, how much you use and your tolerance,” said Capler, who specializes in cannabis policy. “If you’re inhaling it, the peak impairment is about one to two hours and the impairment dissipates after three to four hours.

“If you’re ingesting it, then you might start to feel impairment after an hour or two. It might peak at three or four hours, and be in your system for six to eight hours in terms of it having an effect,” she added.

“If you wanted to be super cautious and conservative, you could say no consumption eight hours before work.”

Capler maintains the police forces are creating a prohibition for a legal substance without the backing of scientific evidence, and that they should carefully examine the research literature on marijuana-induced impairment and revamp their policies based on the findings.

Despite recreational cannabis being previously illegal, many Canadians have been toking or vaping the drug, she said. “And that’s why we’re changing the laws to coincide more with reality and not criminalize people for something that is happening.

“We don’t want anybody impaired on the job — that’s very important, and I think that’s always been important.

“It doesn’t become more important after Oct. 17.”

Health experts have differing opinions on whether there's scientific merit to banning cannabis use for weeks before people in safety-sensitive jobs report for duty.