The federal government is declaring its testing of saliva drug screening devices that check for drugged drivers at the roadside a success despite lingering issues over how accurate the test results are in cold weather conditions.  

A report released by Public Safety Canada examined the results of 1,141 saliva samples collected by police officers across the country between December 2016 and March 2017.

Officers who used the devices reported them as "very easy" to use 62 per cent of the time, with another 29 per cent saying there were "easy" and only two per cent saying they found the devices difficult to use.

Officers also said that in 92 per cent of cases they were either "comfortable" or "very comfortable" using the devices.

"Drug impaired driving is a serious problem and giving law enforcement more tools to detect and deter drug-impaired driving will better protect our communities," said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. "I am pleased the pilot project demonstrates this technology works in our unique Canadian environment."

For the purpose of the trial, police used the Securetec DrugRead and the Alere DDS-2 testing devices.

A key objective of the trial was to see if the devices would work in the deep cold of a Canadian winter. The devices were also tested in rainy and sunny conditions ranging in temperature from –50 degrees to 26 degrees.

The report notes that 65 per cent of tests (731) were administered outside of the manufacturer's suggested temperature operating range. The results showed that while the devices worked, they were "more likely to produce drug-positive result" in cold conditions.

Saliva drug testing devices

The federal government has just wrapped up a pilot project using two different oral-fluid testing devices including this one, the Alere DDS®2 Mobile Test System. (CBC)

Temperature related results

The report notes that 80 per cent of all positive results were recorded when people were tested outside the temperature range recommended by the manufacturer.

"Consequently, further research on the reliability of devices used outside of standard operating temperatures is merited," the report says.

Ian Jack, a spokesman for the Canadian Automobile Association, was himself the subject of a roadside trial of the device in Gatineau, Que., last winter.

Jack says he was not high on drugs at the time of the test and the result came back negative, demonstrating a degree of accuracy, yet he still has some misgivings about the technology.

"The accuracy rate is a bit of a concern," he says. "But we have to use the best technology we have on hand right now.

"There are people on the road right now, impaired with marijuana, so any advance is better than none," he added.

Determining impairment

The trial was spread across the provinces and territories in 25 different communities, with each of the 53 officers trained to use the devices carrying out an average of just under two dozen tests each.

The devices were determined to record a malfunction in about seven per cent of the 1,141 samples taken. In 42 per cent of cases where there was a recorded fault, the cause was unknown. Temperature, however, was determined to be the cause 17 per cent of the time.

The report says that a positive drug test came back 15 per cent of the time. The most common drugs found were marijuana at 61 per cent, followed by methamphetamines and amphetamines at 23 per cent each, cocaine  at 14 per cent, opiates at nine per cent and benzodiazepines at three per cent.

Of the 148 positive tests recorded, 38 recorded the presence of more than one drug.

Saliva testing device

Securetec's DrugWipe® 6 S saliva testing device can detect a number of drugs including cannabis, amphetamines, methamphetamines, ecstasy, benzodiazepines, cocaine, crack, and opiates, including morphine and heroin. (CBC)

The report says, however, that "It is important to note that presence of a drug in the oral fluid does not imply impairment."

The inability to test how much drug or how impaired a driver may be does not concern Mothers Against Drunk Driving, according to the organization's CEO Andrew Murie.

"That's not what this is really all about," Murie said. "That's a screener. It doesn't need to reveal an amount. It just needs to say that recently a driver has used one of the drugs they are testing for and tests confirm they are positive for that."

Murie says the saliva devices are not used in court, they just give police the power to compel a blood test in which a more comprehensive and accurate result can be obtained.

The federal government tabled its bill to legalize marijuana in April and says it expects the law to work its way through Parliament and become law on or before July 1, 2018.

Final Report on the Oral Fluid Drug Screening Device Pilot Project

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