Capitol Alert

California police looking to nab marijuana-impaired drivers with roadside saliva test

Police agencies in California are zeroing in on ways to test drivers impaired by marijuana and other drugs, a task which took on a new sense of urgency after voters legalized recreational marijuana in November.

At the Capitol on Wednesday, law enforcement officers demonstrated a mouth-swab device that detects marijuana impairment in drivers and provides results within minutes.

“As someone who spent 28 years with the California Highway Patrol, I have personally witnessed the tragedies that are associated with this problem,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, whose office organized the event. “When people drive impaired they are really putting themselves and others at risk.”

The machine, an Alere DDS2 with a price tag of nearly $6,000, looks similar to a credit card reader and detects the presence of up to six different drugs in someone’s saliva.

After completing standard field sobriety tests and a breathalyzer screening during the simulation, police asked a woman acting as a drugged driver to rub a swab inside her cheeks to gather fluids. The officer then inserted the swab into a machine.

The Sacramento Police Department previously tested a similar Alere product in a year-long pilot program with the state Office of Traffic Safety that began in October 2013. Mouth swab devices are currently in use by police in San Diego and Los Angeles, as well as other states.

“We wanted to see how accurate and how valid the results were from an immediate test versus the typical blood draw,” said Officer Matthew McPhail, a Sacramento police spokesman.

McPhail said the equipment proved accurate, but did not eliminate other steps officers must take to legally establish that someone is under the influence of drugs. Ultimately, the department decided to forgo purchasing the expensive equipment and continues to prove drug impairment through sobriety tests and subsequent blood samples.

“If we can’t use the system functionally for legal reasons, we aren’t going to spend money on it,” McPhail said. He added that Sacramento police may still adopt the device or similar products in the future.

Proposition 64, the recreational marijuana ballot measure, provided the California Highway Patrol with $3 million a year for four years to come up with protocols to determine whether a driver is too impaired to drive.

Assembly Bill 6, introduced by Assemblyman Lackey, would also form a CHP task force to examine different roadside technologies to detect drug impairment.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna