A newly released report by the state police details the results of a yearlong pilot program of oral fluid roadside drug testing of drivers in five counties: Berrien, Delta, Kent, St. Clair and Washtenaw. The testing ran from November 2017 to November 2018, resulting in 92 tests.
After the results from the yearlong pilot showed promise, the state Legislature approved an additional $626,000 to expand the program to as many as 46 other counties. The expansion is intended to get a larger sample size of roadside tests for better analysis.
The roadside test is an attempt by police to have a fast, accurate way to determine whether a driver is under the influence of drugs. Roadside breath tests can quickly determine how much alcohol is in a driver’s system, but there is not yet a statewide standardized roadside test for drugs.
The pilot program had police officers trained as drug recognition experts take saliva swabs from inside a driver’s mouth, then inserted the swab sample into a portable oral fluid test instrument. The instrument tests for amphetamines, benzodizepines, cannabis (THC), cocaine, methamphetamines and opiates within five minutes.
“The oral fluid pilot program resulted in some lower sample sizes in some drug categories, so we’re hoping to expand to a bigger data set,” said MSP Special First Lt. Jim Flegel, who is directing the program. “We want to allow a greater number of police to take advantage of this.”
Flegel said it’s too early in the expanded pilot program’s timeline to know which counties and law enforcement agencies will participate, but he’s inviting all drug recognition experts in Michigan to take part.
“Each law enforcement agency has to agree to participate, but we want to have every single one of the 137 drug recognition experts throughout the state in the pilot program,” Flegel said.
The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office has at least three fully trained drug recognition experts and several other deputies who are partially trained in the specialty.
Flegel said drug recognition experts are “specially trained to detect impaired driving” and make the distinction between drunken and drugged driving. This is particularly important to law enforcement agencies after the legalization of recreational marijuana in Michigan. Driving while high on marijuana is still illegal.
Drug recognition experts are trained to look for drivers doing any of the following behaviors as being potentially drugged: failure to maintain lane of travel, disregarding traffic control devices, driving with the headlights off, weaving/drifting across lanes, excessively wide turns, following too closely, excessive speed, and significantly slower speeds.
“If the drug recognition expert notices any symptoms of impairment, they’ll ask the driver to step out of the vehicle,” Flegel said. “If the drug recognition expert deems they’re on a controlled substance, they’ll ask the driver to submit to an oral fluid swab. After they submit to the swab, if the police have established enough probable cause for a substance, the driver will be placed under arrest and be asked to do a blood test.”
Blood tests, analyzed by the state police Forensic Science Division, will still be the evidence admissible in court, just like a secondary breathalyzer test is the admissible test for court proceedings in drunken driving cases. If a driver refuses to submit to the oral fluid swab, they’ll be held responsible for a civil infraction.
For the purposes of the pilot program, a driver is considered impaired on marijuana if they have more than 25 nanograms of THC per milliliter of oral fluid.
Of the 92 tests administered during the limited pilot program, 74 were positive for marijuana. Of instances in which the driver gave a oral fluid swab and a blood sample, 12 of those tests were inaccurate, meaning the roadside test was just under 86 percent accurate for THC detection. The 12 inaccurate tests included 11 false positives and one false negative when compared to the blood samples.
From 2007 to 2017, the Michigan State Police reported a 151 percent increase in drug-impaired traffic fatalities, from 98 in 2007 to 246 in 2017.