Roadside drug testing has become a reality in areas of Australia and Europe, and could soon be the case in Canada as well as in the United States if current legislation is passed.
Developed in an effort to deter drugged-driving and the fatal accidents that can result, some see roadside drug testing as important as breathalyzers given to suspected drunk drivers. Others, however, argue that drugs, unlike alcohol, can remain in a user’s systems for weeks and therefore officials cannot be certain if the detected drugs affect driving ability.
Steve Blair, commander of the random drug testing unit in Australia, said of the 36,000 drug tests police have administered to New South Wales (NSW) drivers in 2015, approximately 12% returned positive readings for drugs including cannabis, amphetamines and ecstasy.
“For road safety, if you’re involved in the drug scene, don’t drive a motor vehicle. This is 100% road safety focused. We don’t want anyone impaired by drugs behind the wheel… If you have it in your system, that’s it,” Blair said in a recent article.
The screenings that have occurred in Australia use an oral swabbing device where the subject swipes a plastic strip across their tongue. The strip will shortly react if drugs are present in a person’s saliva, as the drug-reading technology utilizes antibodies that have been manufactured to attach themselves to antigen-like structures on the sought drugs.
If a positive roadside reading is returned, drivers are placed under arrest to provide an additional oral fluid sample, which is sent to a laboratory for more complex forensic testing. Results are usually available within two weeks and if another positive result occurs, law enforcement can then issue infringement notices. First-time offenders receive a $455 fine and the possibility of losing their license for three months.
Unlike drunk driving, however, where there is a threshold for blood alcohol concentration, there is no allowed limit for drugs and thus any detectable amount can mean prosecution.
Blair said in the article that this fact should act as a further deterrent to drivers, but others including the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL), argue the fairness of this and said that the problem of drugged-driving should not be dealt with through random testing.
“The testing only discloses prior drug usage, which may have no adverse impairment of driving ability. Cannabis can hang around in your system for days, maybe even a few weeks, but not have any impact on your ability to drive,” Stephen Blanks, president of NSWCCL, said in the article.
However, police in NSW report that between 2010 and 2014, 14% of all fatalities involved a driver or rider with an illegal drug in their system. In addition, an article states that Australians are among the biggest users of cannabis in the world, with more than one-third of people admitting to trying it and one in 10 using it in the past year.
Government officials say something must be done to combat these statistics, and plan to increase roadside testing from 32,000 tests a year to about 97,000 in 2017.
Financial documents explained in another article, show this will cost the NSW police department $6 million over the next four years—something Australian politician David Shoebridge calls “a waste of money that undermines the legal system” and a “de facto criminal offence of having potentially minuscule quantities of drugs present in your system.”
“We are talking about inevitably thousands of people who will be losing their license for up to 12 months and having to pay significant fines when there was no evidence they were a danger to other road users,” Shoebridge said in the article.
Australian drivers are not alone, however, as similar legislation is expected to be brought in front of Canadian Parliament in the coming weeks or months.
While details on when a police officer can administer a test are still undefined, if passed, these regulations would enable provincial transportation ministries to place “spit kits” in police cruisers alongside alcohol-detecting breathalyzers, an article states.
“Such a move is urgently needed, MADD Canada CEO Andrew Murie said in the article. “What we’re seeing from studies, roadside surveys, is that, especially among young people, drugs and driving has now exceeded alcohol and driving.”
What is lacking on the roadway drug enforcement front, Murie continues, is an effective and simple test deterrent along the lines of the breathalyzer. Young drivers currently know the police do not have the tools to enforce drug-impaired driving.
Currently, police can only use roadside sobriety-testing protocols—such as having suspect drivers stand on one foot—to judge impairment. However, the courts have consistently found this an untrustworthy test, Murie added in the article.
The problem is that unlike alcohol, which can easily be studied in lab settings, drugs of concern are largely illegal and receiving permission to do research studies to produce data is very difficult. However, one team of researchers is studying volunteer subjects at a Phoenix jail and a Jacksonville, Florida drug clinic. Funded by the Federal Justice Department and Ontario’s Transportation Ministry, findings are expected to be reported next spring, the article states.
In addition, the California state assembly is also currently considering a similar bill that would permit on-the-spot drug testing using oral fluid collection devices that the Los Angeles Police Department began testing in 2013. According to city attorney Mike Feuer, the technology is “the wave of the future” and while he is in favor of the legislation, details including the basis needed for testing and the amount of drugs in a person’s system that will warrant prosecution, are still unclear at the moment.
Medical marijuana dispensary owner Lanette Davies said in the article that she is concerned that the new technology could be a potential tool for police abuse concerning those who use marijuana medicinally. “An impaired driver I would completely support not driving,” she said. “However, this is just another way of having zero tolerance for people with THC in their system.”
The article goes on to explain that many advocates in favor of marijuana legalization feel strongly that people should not drive while impaired but some are concerned that new technology would allow police officers to use too much discretion.
“I think that people want to have a clear-cut, black-and-white solution,” Mason Tvert, the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group, said. “They want a specific number that we can use to just say that this person is impaired or not. Unfortunately, it’s a little more of a gray area than that.”
Tvert went on to say, “we allow adults to use alcohol responsibly, and we punish adults if they use it irresponsibly, and that includes driving while drunk. We should be doing the same thing with marijuana.”
In fact, a government study on impaired driving released in February found that drivers who had used marijuana were at a far lower risk of getting into a car accident than drivers who had used alcohol. The finding were stated as follows:
“The Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk report, produced by the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that while drunken driving dramatically increased the risk of getting into an accident, there was no evidence that using marijuana heightened that risk. In fact, after adjusting for age, gender, race and alcohol use, the report found that stoned drivers were no more likely to crash than drivers who were not intoxicated at all.”
However, the researchers added that their report’s findings “do not indicate that drug use by drivers is risk-free,” adding that “the study limitations…together with the findings of numerous other studies using different and complementary methods, need to be carefully considered before more definitive conclusions about drug use and crash risk can be reached.”
Ron Lawrence, chief of police for the city of Rocklin, echoed this sentiment and said in the article that all things aside, the number of drugged drivers is increasing rapidly, and those in law enforcement simply do not have the tools necessary to determine the level of impairment on anything other than alcohol.
“If the legalization of marijuana is in our future, we in California law enforcement need to be prepared to deal with the roadways and safety precautions of tomorrow,” he added.
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