Oct. 23 2015 11:16 AM

Pilot program for roadside marijuana checks proposed

LANSING – For years, police officers have used portable Breathalyzers to check drivers’ blood alcohol level. But there’s never been a portable marijuana-testing equivalent at officers’ disposal, according to Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge.

Jones is sponsoring a bill with Sens. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, that would allow on-site drug checks. It would authorize State Police to collect Breathalyzer test results and saliva samples during a traffic stop for the duration of a year. The pilot program would be implemented in three Michigan counties, checking for drivers not only under the influence of alcohol, but also for drugs.

“It used to take an incredible amount of time of a police officer’s shift” to deal with a drugged driver “and now science provided us with roadside tests for drugs,” said Jones.

The lack of an accurate roadside test to determine levels of THC – a psychoactive compound in marijuana that impairs driving – in a driver’s system, is a major concern for police agencies, said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

“We’re not even aware, at this point in time, of a drug test that we can widely use,” Stevenson said. “That’s why this roadside testing is such a hot issue within our criminal justice system.”

Current practices allow police officers to ask drivers to undergo a blood test if there’s probable cause to believe they’re operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But the effort to get a search warrant and require drivers to have blood drawn is a laborious process.

“The only reliable test” police departments have “is a drug recognition expert, which is a test that they give on the side of the road, but of all the police in Michigan, only 82 are trained at this time to use them,” Stevenson said. “It’s a long training course and we don’t have people willing to leave to go out of state to get the training.”

Sgt. Timothy Fitzgerald, legislative liaison for the State Police, says only a trooper or officer with advanced training in roadside impairment would administer the new Oral Fluid Drug Test allowed under the bill.

The new test can detect an arsenal of recent drug use from just a sample of saliva, such as cannabinoids, opiates and amphetamines.

“They haven’t been field tested, but they have been tested in development to get to this phase,” Fitzgerald said.

If the state implements this new drug test for one year, then it will be up to the Legislature to decide if it is worth expanding or codifying into law.

“The goal is to get to a level that will work in coordination with the standardized field sobriety test that we already use,” Fitzgerald said.

Some marijuana advocates think the bill unfairly targets medical marijuana patients.

“A Breathalyzer will give you some sort of reading as to the concentration of blood alcohol, while a saliva test simply gives you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for THC,” said Brandon Gardner, a litigator for the Fiorletta Law Group in Grand Rapids, which specializes in cannabis law. “Those with different health conditions might absorb marijuana as opposed to somebody who’s healthy.”

Michigan is one of 15 states with a zero-tolerance law for marijuana-impaired driving, which means it is illegal to drive with any measurable amount of the drug in one’s system. Only a few states have a per se law making it illegal to drive with amounts of specified drugs in the body that exceed certain limits – similar to the .08 per se standard for alcohol.

If it becomes law, the one-year pilot program would cost the state an estimated $30,000 to $50,000. The only drivers subject to the test would have to exhibit indicators to justify probable cause of impairment to an officer.

The bill was inspired by a 2013 fatal car crash that occurred in the Upper Peninsula, when a truck driver with marijuana in his blood killed Thomas and Barbara Smith.

According to Fitzgerald, 86 fatalities happened that same year due to drivers with marijuana in their system, which may or may not indicate that the drug was a factor in the crash.

The bill was reported out of the Judiciary Committee and is being considered by the full Senate.

— AMELIA HAVANEC, Capital News Service


Senate Bill 434: http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?2015-SB-0434

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