Roadside saliva test coming for toking and driving?

Release Date: 
July 11, 2016
Author: 
Antonella Artuso
Toronto Sun

Canadians suspected of driving while high could be required to submit to a roadside saliva test that identifies the use of marijuana, cocaine and opioids.

An oral fluid test is one of the suggestions from a discussion paper released on June 30 by the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation.

“We’ll scream blue bloody murder if it’s not in place before legalization,” MADD Canada CEO Andrew Murie said.

“Because we already have a problem,” he added. “It’s well acknowledged we have a problem with young people, so we really need this to be in place before legalization.”

While the task force is looking at the oral fluid test — a roadside saliva swab — for the detection of marijuana use, the test can also reveal the presence of other drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, opioids and amphetamine.

“In contrast to alcohol, there is currently no roadside breathalyzer-type test to detect impairment with marijuana,” the task force discussion paper says. “However, roadside oral fluid tests are being used in other jurisdictions that can detect the presence of marijuana in oral fluid, which can be suggestive of recent use. This is an active area of Canadian and international research.”

A State Farm Insurance survey of Canadian attitudes toward marijuana use and driving raised some red flags in the spring.

One-quarter of people polled didn’t believe or know that pot-impaired driving can be as bad as drunk driving.

The majority of people polled thought the justice system was unprepared to deal with the fallout of legalizing marijuana.

“Right now, the police only have a limited behavioural test they use,” Murie said. “There’s very few officers trained to do this. And basically the public knows that and they feel fairly confident that they can — especially young people — smoke pot and drive.

“They also perceive that they’re safer driving under the influence of marijuana than alcohol.”

While it’s true that the impairment is different than that in booze-fuelled motoring — which tends to encourage speeding — it’s no less dangerous, he said.

A driver who’s high tends to drive far too slowly and make very wide motions, including turns, Murie said.

“They think they’re normal but it’s very exaggerated,” he said. “Alcohol gives you that Superman-type of mentality, with drugs they’re very cautious. But you know what, they crash all the time.”

Coroners investigating traffic fatalities find dead drivers are more likely to have drugs in their system than alcohol — a “scary” 40% more, Murie said.

Yet only about 2.6% of all criminal impaired charges laid across the country last year were for drugs — proof that reforms are required, he insisted.

The Criminal Code needs to be changed to permit an oral fluid test on a driver suspected of drug impairment, and the government must also establish legal limits for drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, he said.

Other jurisdictions that have gone down this road have set legal limits for certain drugs, such as opioids, similar to those in place for alcohol.

“The levels that would be set for opioids would be above the highest level a doctor would prescribe,” Murie said. “The same with medical marijuana.”

Bob Nichols, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, said police now use a Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) at roadside to nab drivers who are high.

“If a driver fails the SFST, the officer can arrange for a more complete testing protocol called Drug Recognition Expert Evaluation. As part of this procedure, a sample of urine or blood is tested for presence and concentrations of various drugs,” he said.

Beginning on Oct. 2, police in Ontario will be able to issue escalating roadside driving suspensions of three, seven or 30 days if the officer has a “reasonable belief” that the driver is impaired by drugs.