Drivers and Vehicles

Impaired Driving

This page summarizes the penalties and risks associated with drug and alcohol impaired driving.

The comments on this website relate to provisions of the law currently in force. Such comments are not a substitute for the law. The reader is encouraged to consult the Motor Vehicles Act, the Criminal Code and Bill C-46 (An Act to amend the Criminal Code) for further detail. 

How drugs and alcohol can affect your driving

  • Drugs can affect your judgment, reaction time, coordination and motor skills. Even a small amount of drugs, no matter how they are taken, can impair your ability to drive.
  • Alcohol can have various effects on an individual’s driving abilities, including reduced reaction times, blurred vision, and impaired attention.

When you drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you increase your risk of getting into an accident. 

What counts as impaired driving

Impaired driving means operating a vehicle (including cars, trucks, vessels, snowmobiles, aircraft and off-road vehicles) while your ability to do so has been compromised to any degree by consuming alcohol, drugs or a combination of the two.

Penalties for impaired driving

Territorial Penalties Motor Vehicles Act

In the NWT there is zero tolerance for novice drivers, drivers under the age of 22, and drivers of the following commercial vehicles who have any amount of drugs or alcohol detected in their systems:

  • tractors
  • a combination of a tractor and one or two trailers, including a semitrailer
  • a straight truck
  • a taxi
  • a single vehicle with three or more axles
  • a bus
  • a school bus
  • emergency vehicles
  • or other vehicles which may be prescribed in regulation under the Motor Vehicles Act.

Novice drivers and drivers under the age of 22 will receive a 30-day administrative licence suspension/disqualification under the Motor Vehicles Act.  Drivers of specified commercial vehicles will receive a 3-day administrative licence suspension/disqualification (unless they are a novice driver or under the age of 22, in which case the 30-day suspension/disqualification specified above applies).

For all drivers, 24-hour administrative licence suspensions/disqualifications can be issued under the Motor Vehicles Act if an officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the ability of a person who is operating a motor vehicle on a highway (or has the care or control of a motor vehicle on a highway) is adversely affected because the person has consumed or otherwise introduced drugs or alcohol into their body, or is fatigued.

Drivers can also receive a 24-hour administrative licence suspension/disqualification for having a blood alcohol concentration exceeding .05%. This suspension/disqualification could increase to 30 days if the driver has been subject to certain previous suspensions, disqualifications, or prohibitions.*

Drivers can also receive a 90-day administrative licence suspension/disqualification for having a blood alcohol concentration exceeding .08%.

There are also administrative driver’s licence suspensions/disqualifications for all drivers failing, or refusing without a reasonable excuse, a Standardized Field Sobriety Test or an evaluation by an evaluating officer (also known as a Drug Recognition Expert).

Federal Penalties (under the Criminal Code)

It is an offence under the Criminal Code to drive a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft, snowmobile, or all-terrain vehicle while impaired by drugs, alcohol, or a combination of both.

It is also an offence under the Criminal Code to operate a motor vehicle if you are over a prohibited blood drug concentration or blood alcohol concentration.

Penalties under the Criminal Code may include fines, driving prohibitions, and the possibility of imprisonment.

For more information on these Criminal Code laws, please visit the Federal Department of Justice website located here.

Transporting cannabis in a vehicle

It is illegal to consume cannabis in a vehicle and/or have an open container of cannabis in a vehicle.

Cannabis can be transported in a vehicle, however, it must either be stored in the original unopened container it was purchased in, or, if previously opened, in a closed container placed in a part of the vehicle designed for the carriage of goods and that is not readily accessible to the driver or any passenger.

Medical cannabis users

The laws apply to all drivers, regardless of whether they have an exemption to use medical cannabis.

How police detect impaired drivers

In the NWT, many RCMP officers are specially trained to detect impaired drivers and remove them from the road. The following methods are used to detect drivers under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol:

  • Oral Fluid Screening Devices (drugs)
    Oral fluid drug screeners can be used by police to detect the presence of some drugs in saliva, including THC, the main impairing component in cannabis.

    If a driver tests positive on an oral fluid screening test, the positive result would confirm the presence of the drug and, combined with other signs of impairment observed by the police at the roadside, would provide grounds for the investigation to proceed further either by making a demand for an evaluation by an evaluating officer or a blood sample.

    Police can demand an oral fluid sample if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver has drugs in their body based on objectively visible facts, including but not limited to:
      • red eyes
      • muscle tremors
      • agitation
      • speech patterns
  • Breath Testing (alcohol)
    If a police officer suspects that a driver has consumed alcohol, the officer can demand a breath sample at the roadside to determine if the driver has alcohol in their body.  Further testing on an approved instrument will provide an actual blood alcohol concentration.
  • Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (drugs and/or alcohol)
    Physical co-ordination tests, also known as Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFST), are administered at the roadside by peace officers under the Criminal Code. When a peace officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that a driver has alcohol or a drug in their body (or a combination of both) and that person has, within the preceding three hours, operated a motor vehicle or had the care or control of a motor vehicle, the peace officer may, by demand, require the person to comply with a SFST.

    A police officer trained in SFST will be qualified to perform three roadside tests to detect impairment. These will include assessing eye movement, as well as walk and turn and one leg stand tests. The results of these tests will allow an officer to determine if there are reasonable grounds to believe a person is impaired, and if available, proceed to further assessment of an evaluating officer (to determine if the individual is impaired by a drug and what type of drug).
  • Evaluations by Evaluating Officers (drugs and alcohol)
    These evaluations are conducted by a peace officer who is specially trained as an evaluating officer (or Drug Recognition Expert). The evaluations are conducted when the evaluating officer has reasonable grounds to believe that a person is committing an offence under paragraph 253(1)(a) of the Criminal Code as the result of the consumption of a drug or a combination of alcohol and a drug, or has committed an offence under subsection 253(3) of the Criminal Code.

    An evaluating officer undertakes a 12-step standardized and systematic process to determine not only if someone is impaired, but also what type of drug they are likely impaired by. These steps include eye examinations, clinical indicators such as blood pressure and temperature, divided attention tests, and pupil size. They are able to make a conclusion based on the officer’s experience and a DRE Symptomatology Matrix about the impairment of an individual. This evaluation is followed up with a toxicological sample (urine, blood, or oral fluid) to confirm blood alcohol and/or drug concentration levels.

Questions and answers

  1. How does “zero tolerance” work? If I smoked cannabis yesterday, but am not impaired at all, why shouldn’t I be allowed to drive?
    The oral fluid drug detecting devices proposed for use under the Criminal Code and used to enforce zero tolerance laws in the NWT, do not detect the non-impairing components of cannabis, so they would only provide a positive result if cannabis has recently been consumed.

    The zero tolerance laws for novice drivers, drivers aged 21 and under, and operators of specified commercial vehicles under the Motor Vehicles Act make it an offence for these drivers to have any amount of cannabis or alcohol in their system, regardless of whether or not they are found to be impaired.

    Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (also known as physical coordination tests) and evaluations by Drug Recognition Experts are testing methods approved under the Criminal Code to detect driver impairment by drugs.  These testing methods are also approved for use under the Motor Vehicles Act.

    It is important to remember that everyone reacts to cannabis differently.  Reactions depend on various factors, such as the strength of the cannabis consumed, how it is consumed, and how quickly the individual metabolizes it.  Because of this, it is impossible to say how long an individual should wait to drive after consuming cannabis, as the impairing affects will vary from person to person.  If you have recently consumed cannabis, you should not be driving.
     
  2. What do the zero tolerance laws mean for medical cannabis users?  Are there exemptions for medical cannabis users?
    The law applies to all drivers, regardless of whether they have an exemption to use medical cannabis.
     
  3. How long should a person wait to drive after consuming cannabis?
    Unlike alcohol, the existing scientific evidence does not provide general guidance to drivers about how much cannabis can be consumed before it is unsafe to drive or how long a driver should wait to drive after consuming cannabis.

    Everyone reacts to cannabis differently.  Reactions depend on various factors, such as the strength of the cannabis consumed, how it is consumed, how quickly the individual metabolizes it, and if it is consumed with other impairing substances such as alcohol.  Because of this, it is impossible to say for sure how long an individual should wait to drive after consuming cannabis, as the impairing affects will vary from person to person.

    Mixing driving with cannabis, or any other impairing drug, is not safe and poses a serious danger to our highways. If you have recently consumed cannabis, you should not be driving.