Drugged Driving in CA: New Mouth Swab Tests Hit the Highway

The problem of drugged driving has been on the rise in California for years, and with marijuana soon to be legalized for recreational use, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Even though marijuana is not slated to be available for sale legally for recreational use until the new year, many Californians have taken the passage of the law to be a license to use in whatever manner they like. Still others have seen this law as signifying that the drug is safe for any and all use, and the result has been an increasing number of people on the road who are under the influence.  

Unfortunately, law enforcement does not have the same tools to fight drugged driving as they do to identify and manage drivers who get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol. Though there are alcohol tests that can be done in the field to assess the level of alcohol in a person’s blood and immediately identify someone who is too drunk to drive, there was no such test for marijuana or any other drug, for that matter until recently. 

Over the St. Patrick’s Day holiday, San Diego Police unveiled a new machine that could assist them in the fight against drugged driving: the Dräger DrugTest 5000. These machines give San Diego officers the ability to test for the presence of seven different substances in the body including marijuana, opioids, cocaine, amphetamine, methadone, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines. The machine has been in use since 2009 by a number of departments across the country, including in Los Angeles, and now, San Diego PD will be using the test to help identify drivers who are too high to drive.  

The test is administered with a mouth swab that the driver is instructed to rub on the inside of their mouth for approximately four minutes. The swab is then inserted with a vial of solution into the Dräger DrugTest 5000, which analyzes the testing sample and generates a printout that identifies what substances are present in the person’s system.  

Is it a viable option for managing the problem of drugged driving in California? 

Presence vs. Levels

One potential issue is that the Dräger DrugTest 5000 only detects the presence of different substances in the system, not the exact levels. Thus, if a driver who is pulled over tests positive for any substance, they will be required to submit to a blood test to determine the levels in the blood at that time. A police phlebotomist must be on hand to provide that test in a timely manner; thus, the test is only practical when it is administered at a DUI checkpoint or another stationary location as opposed to out in the field.  

It is important to note that a driver can refuse to submit to the mouth swab test and take the Dräger DrugTest, but if that happens, they will be required to take a blood test immediately.  

Cost and Portability

At about $6,000 each, the Dräger DrugTest 5000 comes with a hefty price tag, especially since it is necessary to have a phlebotomist on standby to test for actual levels should a test come back positive. This lack of portability and high cost put it out of reach of some smaller police departments and make it only usable under certain circumstances in other departments.  

Identified Substances of Abuse

The Dräger DrugTest 5000 only identifies the presence of seven different substances in a user’s system. This means that a number of other substances that can also impair a person’s ability to drive will not trigger a positive test result by the machine. Hallucinogens and synthetic substances like bath salts and K2 will not show up unless they are cut with one of the seven substances that the test identifies.  

A Step Further 

Though the Dräger DrugTest 5000 is not the best possible solution to the problem of correctly identifying drivers who are too impaired to drive, it is one step closer to the portable test that is needed to manage the problem of drugged driving in California more efficiently. Until then, police departments across the state and across the country will likely begin to use the Dräger DrugTest 5000 at DUI checkpoints in an effort to protect the public from unsafe drivers who are under the influence. 

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