Michigan will begin a one-year pilot test program later this year that allows trained state police officers to take roadside saliva drug tests from drivers whom they suspect are driving while impaired from drugs.
Five counties, to be chosen by state police from areas where the most drug-related arrests and impaired driving accidents have occurred, will begin the program sometime after this summer, state police officials announced Wednesday.
The Michigan program is expected to be watched by other states amid rising concern among lawmakers and law enforcement on how to effectively police those who drive while using drugs (policies for drunk driving are well established).
Thus far, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana. Twenty states along with the District have also decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot. Such widespread availability of marijuana as well as concerns over increased use of hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, have led lawmakers to register concerns about how to get such drivers off the road. A saliva check in the pilot program will test for all three substances.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, in June, signed Senate Bills 207 and 434 into law. "The five-county pilot program will be used to help determine accuracy and reliability of the tests," Snyder said in a statement.
Thus far, the plan has not yet inspired backlash from civil rights and other pro-drug use groups across the state decrying invasion of privacy. It follows in the footsteps of Vermont, where House lawmakers in April passed a measure that lets police use a saliva test to find out if drivers have used a combination of alcohol and marijuana.
The Michigan pilot program allows officers trained as Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) to administer the saliva tests. The DREs must undergo 72 hours of training to be certified to administer them. An officer who pulls someone over and suspects drugs, but who is not certified, may call for DRE backup to perform such a test.
Michigan authorities reported record increases in drug-related traffic accidents over the past decade, including, 2,215 in 2015.
While such field saliva tests are inexpensive, costing about $2 apiece, some argue they are unreliable. Michigan officers who are trained will use the saliva tests alongside a 12-step program that evaluates symptoms of possible drug use, including dilated pupils, respiration and blood pressure. The pilot program was designed to help the state, using data from the five counties, to determine such reliability standards and to guide roadside drug test policy moving forward, state officials said.
Saliva tests, which are hard to fake, measure what is called a parent compound in drugs, which means that the substance is already in a driver's blood system and causing him or her to be impaired. By contrast, drug tests of urine, often used in employment screenings, are geared at measuring metabolites, which are described as the by-products of a drug itself.
According to a study released in 2015 by the National Highway Transportation Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 62 percent of those people killed in driving accidents in 2013 were tested for drugs. Of that sample, 57.3 percent had no drugs present, but 34.7 percent tested positive for marijuana and 9.7 positive for amphetamines.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, in a report directed at states, noted the complexity of dealing with drug-impaired driving over alcohol-impaired driving.
It said there were hundreds of different types of drugs that could cause impairment and they affected different people in different ways. The group also noted that data on drug impaired driving were limited and inconsistent from state to state along with current state laws governing driving under the influence of drugs.
"It’s more difficult for law enforcement to detect drug impairment at the roadside than alcohol impairment," the reported said, adding that "it’s more difficult to prosecute and convict a driver for DUID than for alcohol-impaired driving (DUI)."