Roadside Drug Testing

Tom Rataj
December 23, 2016
By Tom Rataj
As Canada irreversibly heads towards decriminalising marijuana, the spectre of more drug-impaired drivers is naturally a major concern.

Most officers already know that it’s common to find drivers smoking a joint while driving, in the same manner as if they were smoking a cigarette. Once the new federal legislation becomes law, I would expect this to become far more common, and likely very problematic and dangerous.

Unfortunately, marijuana isn’t the only drug that’s an issue, as we can see from the current crisis with Fentanyl and party drugs like ecstasy.

Officers encountering drivers they suspect are drug impaired will need better training to make quick, legally-sound assessments that can withstand the rigours of the court system.

he 2008 revisions to the Criminal Code provided police with more powers to better deal with drivers suspected of drug impairment. Officers can conduct a Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) combined with an at-scene evaluation by an officer specially trained and qualified as a Drug Recognition Evaluator (DRE). Unfortunately the number of DREs, even in larger police services, are limited, so the entire roadside evaluation process is difficult to implement consistently. More officers will need DRE training to make this effective.

Roadside drug testing
Fortunately, there is plenty of activity in developing point-of-contact (POC) drug screening devices. New oral-fluid testing technologies allow officers to quickly and easily undertake a preliminary examination for drug use after conducting a SFST to evaluate impairment. Most systems can simultaneously detect four or more types of drugs present in one sample.

The Canadian Society of Forensic Science is currently conducting a scientific evaluation of roadside drug screening devices and systems from several major international manufacturers for Canada’s Department of Justice.

These use a tongue-depressor sized instrument wiped over the tongue of a test subject. The sample is then analyzed in a number of different ways and results are displayed. The devices have already been used for a number of years in the UK, US, Australia and several European countries and are deemed accurate enough for investigative and enforcement purposes.

The primary advantage of using oral fluids is that they provide a fairly accurate indication of recent drug use, using a toxicological method known as immunoassays, which uses antibodies to recognize chemical configurations.

Alternative testing methods include taking blood or urine samples, but both would be difficult or impossible to implement on the street. Blood samples are highly accurate, but test results are not immediately available. Urine samples can only detect the presence of drug metabolites, which persist in urine long after the impairing effects of the drug has ended, so have limited value.

In some countries oral fluid testing is used in the same way as a roadside breath-testing devices, providing grounds for further testing, which is typically done using a blood sample.

Legal limits
One of the challenges with writing any new legislation is setting legal limits for individual drugs. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto is already conducting research to determine at which level marijuana impairs a person’s ability to drive. It is using an advanced driving simulator to test participants’ behaviour after using. Australia uses a limit of 5 nanograms per micro-litre of blood for marijuana.

Legislators will need to determine a measurable limit for individual drugs. Another option would be zero tolerance, as is currently in place in many jurisdictions for novice drivers and alcohol.

Equipment types
All the testing devices being evaluated in Canada are in service elsewhere and use an oral fluid specimen collection and analysis approach. This is quick and simple and requires a minimal number of step by the officer.

Some systems use a simple, non-electronic collection and testing device; others have a collection device and separate electronic analyzer. Results are available within a few minutes.

Drug testing is considerably more expensive than roadside alcohol testing. Consumables for road-side breath testing cost about $0.35, compared to $35 for some drug testing devices, so it will be a challenge for police budgets.

Detection
Most current drug testing devices and systems test only for the presence of cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine, opioids and ecstasy. SFSTs and DREs will still need to be relied upon for cases where there is obvious impairment but the roadside drug-test detects nothing.

Prevention & deterrence
Of course prevention and deterrence will be an important tool in reducing risk and improving outcomes. A highly visible education and enforcement program run by the Australian state of Victoria appears to have achieved positive behavioural changes, a high level of public awareness and the perceived likelihood of detection. Legislation should also probably include automatic roadside drivers licence suspensions and vehicle impoundments, as is done with alcohol related driving offences.

Canadian police services should be proactive and begin researching and developing preventative programs in conjunction with medical health authorities and organisations such as MADD. More drug detection and training should also be initiated to prepare for the future.

Resources:
The manufacturers and devices chosen for review were:
Tom Rataj is Blue Line’s editor and technology columnist and can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
More in this category:  |  Keeping a leash on mobile devices »

Add comment


Security code
Refresh

Subscription Centre

New Subscription
Already a Subscriber
Customer Service
View Digital Magazine Renew

Most Popular