Vol. 79, No. 4New technology

Police officer collects man's saliva in small clear tube.

Finding a roadside drug test

Using saliva samples to convict high drivers

Oral fluid screening devices can be used roadside to detect the presence of drugs in a driver's saliva. Credit: Serge Gouin


Police agencies in Canada have found a new way to test drug-impaired drivers — using saliva. In a pilot project run earlier this year, the RCMP and other Canadian police agencies in collaboration with Public Safety Canada tested two different oral fluid screening devices, which can identify the presence of drugs using a mouth swab.

The study comes as police forces across the country are preparing for the anticipated legalization of marijuana on July 1, 2018.

"Drug impaired driving is increasing steadily, and we can only speculate that if cannabis [marijuana] becomes legalized, this will increase further," says Sgt. Ray Moos, an officer from the RCMP's National Traffic Services who is co-ordinating the project. "We're planning on being prepared either way."

Much like a breathalyser test for alcohol impairment, an oral fluid drug screening device is a small, portable machine that police can use to test drivers for impairment at roadside blocks and random stops. There's currently no device for police officers to detect drug-impaired driving in Canada, making an oral fluids screening device a potential first.

The pilot

Even though drug detecting devices are used in other countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom with success, Canadian researchers wanted to make sure the devices would be durable enough to work in our variable, often cold climate, within Canadian law enforcement practices.

Seven police agencies from big, small, urban and rural areas were involved in the pilot project which took place between December 2016 and March 2017, including RCMP in North Battleford, Sask., and Yellowknife, N.W.T.

In total, 53 officers across the country were trained to use the devices, and they collected approximately 1,000 samples from volunteers in more than 25 communities in all types of weather, temperatures and times of day. The samples were safely disposed of after the tests.

The two devices tested in the pilot can identify six of the most commonly abused drugs: cannabis, amphetamines, methamphetamines, cocaine, opiates and benzodiazepines. Cannabis was the most commonly found drug in the study, accounting for 61 per cent of all positive tests.

"Those few drugs make up a large proportion of our impaired driving numbers, so being able to test them immediately rather than call in a Drug Recognition Expert would be useful," says D'Arcy Smith, a toxicologist who works in National Traffic Services. "It allows us to make better use of our resources."

The RCMP currently uses police officers trained in the Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) and the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) program to detect impaired drivers. With approximately 1,000 SFST-trained officers and 500 DREs in the force — about 10 per cent of all RCMP officers — it can be a challenge to have an expert attend every roadside stop.

"In my experience, Drug Recognition Experts aren't always available when dealing with a suspected drug-impaired driver," says Cst. Tyler Dunphy, a Yellowknife RCMP officer who participated in the pilot. "Having a roadside screening device will increase the number of officers who are able to identify drug impaired driving and will ultimately hold more drivers accountable for their actions."

Overall, the results from the pilot project showed that with the proper training, oral fluid screening devices can be a useful additional tool for police to detect people driving under the influence of drugs.

Next steps

While the devices can effectively detect the presence of a drug, Smith notes this does not always relate directly to the impairment of an individual. Alcohol has a strict per se limit of 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood — a blood alcohol concentration put into the Criminal Code at which it becomes illegal to drive. Drugs do not currently have legislated per se limits.

"We're talking about thousands of drugs," says Smith. "We don't have the same body of research on drug impairment, so it's difficult to pick number for a limit. It also depends on the individual tolerance of the person and how they react to specific drugs."

Despite these challenges, police are not backing down on enforcing drug impaired driving. The pilot is now being used to develop training, guidelines and standards for the devices. If all goes as planned, the RCMP will roll out the oral fluid screening devices before next summer.

"It's one more tool that we're putting into our front-line officers' tool belt to deal with impaired drivers on our roads," says Smith.

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