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News 13 Investigates: NC considers new test for marijuana-impaired drivers

North Carolina is now considering a new way to test for marijuana use behind the wheel. It's not a breathalyzer or blood test, but a cotton swap for your saliva. Driving high is now growing concern for officers as more states legalize marijuana. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

North Carolina is now considering a new way to test for marijuana use behind the wheel. It's not a breathalyzer or blood test, but a cotton swap for your saliva.

Driving high is now growing concern for officers as more states legalize marijuana.

ORAL FLUID DRUG TEST

A company in Western North Carolina says they have a way to easily test for impairment.

"We'll measure, accurately, exactly how much oral fluid we would have in a device like this," said Jack Smith, owner of Sci-Teck Clinical Laboratory.

Smith said they were one of the first labs in the country accredited in oral fluid drug testing.

"Our accuracy is 100 percent. If we send out a positive, we can go to court and defend that. It's forensically defensible," Smith said.

Over the last 15 years, he believes Sci-Teck has perfected how to measure the exact amount of drugs, including marijuana, in someone's system.

"We're taking THC, breaking it down to the molecular level, getting a fingerprint, that is the gold standard in the industry. It can't be challenged. That's what you want," Smith said.

TESTING THE DEVICE ROADSIDE

Colorado State Police tell us they're in the final phase of a study testing different oral fluid devices and hope to release their results soon.

Sgt. Rob Madden with CSP said they were chosen as the primary agency to study the devices by the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

"The study was designed as a three-phase blind test. The first phase was very broad and Drug Recognition Expert trained troopers tested a very wide variety of testing systems. Phase two narrowed the study down to a few testing devices. We are now in phase three, and for this phase, the testing study was transitioned directly to the Colorado State Patrol," said Sgt. Madden in an email to News 13.

As to exactly which type of testing they're reviewing, that information has not yet been released.

"Upon completion of this phase, time line is unknown. I am told that a formal report will be generated," Sgt. Madden said.

The oral fluid test involves a cotton swab placed in the driver's mouth for several minutes, then tested.

Asheville police Sgt. Ann Fowler said, right now, they rely on bloodwork sent to the state crime lab to determine if the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is present.

The crime lab's data shows that in December 2017, 57 percent of their drug positive cases contained THC. On average, about 45 percent of samples that test positive for drugs contain THC or its two primary metabolites.

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CONCERNS ABOUT NEW TESTING

But there's still no clear answer as to exactly how much THS is dangerous for a driver, since it can stay in someone's system for several days.

"That's the hardest thing with drug impairment, we can't qualify drug impairment," Sgt Fowler said.

She said specially-trained drug recognition experts use a 12 step sobriety test to observe indicators of drug use.

But with just six of those officers in the Buncombe County area, they're not always available.

"For the average officer on the road who doesn't have the advanced training, it is much more difficult for them," Sgt. Fowler said.

She said North Carolina is now discussing whether oral fluid tests could be helpful here.

"It would be an additional tool, but it would definitely not be the be all end all. We would still have to have an officer do the testing to show the impairment," Sgt. Fowler said.

Which is exactly what attorney James Minick is worried about. He's concerned that a roadside test within minutes could sway an officer's opinion, instead of observing impairment firsthand.

"If there is too much emphasis placed in that chemical test, that could result in false arrests," Minick said.

He said it is DWI cases involving marijuana that are often hard for officers to investigate who do not have special drug training.

“For most traffic patrol officers, the exposure to training on drug impaired drivers is minimal. The purpose of the THC breath testing device would appear to be testing for the presence of marijuana and not to determine if someone is impaired by the drug. An officer who has limited ability to detect and investigate a person he suspects is impaired by a substance other than alcohol might place an inappropriate amount of weight on the breath test in making an arrest decision,” Minick said.

But some believe it's a tool that could save lives.

"I think it needs to be done. Ithink we need to start it immediately, so the sooner we start, the sooner we know," Smith, of Sci-Teck, said.

News 13 also talked with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. They said they are also studying the advantages and disadvantages of using oral fluid testing.


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