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Are Roadside Cannabis Breathalyzer Tests Around the Corner?

The trend toward marijuana legalization collides with the decades-old road safety push.

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While many are wringing their hands about a theoretical study and an impractical device, drivers are going to jail for failing a roadside THC screen — just overseas. The Europeans are years ahead of the U.S. on road safety — with novel new kits for detecting the presence of marijuana and other drugs, combined with stiff zero tolerance “per se” laws to send sober smokers to jail.

The Italian paper Ansa reports Nov. 11 that Italian police are using a drug test kit called the “DrugWipe 5 S”, which involves swabbing the saliva of a suspect instead of analyzing their breath. Two motorists were busted on the side of the road after a DrugWipe detected THC in their spit.

The DrugWipe 5 beat out eight other on-site oral fluid screening devices in a four-year, multi-country trial called DRUID in Europe which concluded in 2010.

“To date, oral fluid screening devices for the detection of drugs have been used in only a few countries, but an increasing number are planning to introduce them as a legal screening device,” DRUID researchers write. “The benefits of using oral fluid for drug screening purposes is that recent drug use can better be detected in oral fluid than in urine, sweat or hair. On top of that, oral fluid collection is much less invasive than urine collection.”

Zero Tolerance

Europe’s zero tolerance “per se” drug laws have become all the rage in U.S. law enforcement circles, notes California attorney Omar Figueroa. Fourteen states, predominantly in the Midwest, will lock you up if you’re sober, but still have any byproducts of marijuana in your system.

For example, under the Arizona per se law, a regular weed user is technically DUI in Arizona for up to a month after he or she quits. Every year Californians must beat back copycat laws calling for zero tolerance “per se” limits on marijuana that are promulgated by police lobbies, notes Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML.

“Detecting THC is not the same as impairment,” he said. “I abhor the policy.”

“Per se” limits mean the government doesn’t have to prove you are high, he said. They are massively unjust, and a vindictive sheriff in a “per se” state - like Arizona - could easily buy and deploy a bunch of DrugWipes at DUI checkpoints near a college or a concert to generate DUIs, convictions and law enforcement income.

“What’s to stop Sheriff Joe Arpaio? Nothing,” Armentano said. “But it hasn’t happened yet.”

“I’m not really terribly concerned about any of these [kits], unless it’s misused like it is in Australia, where drivers and tested randomly on the road,” said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML.

Wasting Money

Cost-benefit analyses don’t justify anything more than select deployment of THC cheek swabs, experts note.

“The time-consuming process of on-site oral fluid screening, in combination with the quite high cost of the devices and the relatively low sensitivity for cannabis, which in many countries is the most frequently used illegal drug, will probably prevent large-scale random drug testing in practice,” the DRUID report concludes.

A stoned driver is 1.83 times as likely to get in a crash as a sober one, but a drunk driver is 13.64 times as likely to be in a crash, writes researcher Guohua Li, a professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology and the founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University, in a 2013 paper.

Other 2013 research from D. Mark Anderson from Montana State University shows legalizing pot makes roads significantly safer through substitution, meaning would-be drunk drivers are lighting up legal weed, drinking less, and staying home instead.