Roadside Drug-Testing Program Launches In Michigan

By Paul Fuhr 11/13/17

The year-long pilot program comes in response to a dramatic rise in the number of fatal car accidents involving drugs.

Police officer has pulled over a motorist and is using his flashlight to check the back seat.

A new roadside drug-testing program is being piloted in five select Michigan counties, according to CBS Detroit. Michigan State Police will now pull over people who they suspect are “drugged drivers,” administering a mouth-swab test that can detect a wide variety of controlled substances.

The year-long pilot program comes as a response to a dramatic uptick in the state’s number of fatal car accidents involving drugs.

“In 2016, there were 236 drug-involved traffic fatalities, which is an increase of 32% from 179 drug-involved traffic fatalities in 2015,” the story said. (Interestingly, the number of drinking-related car accidents has gone down in recent years.)

Police hope the new program will not only curb the number of accidents, but send a clear message that prescription drugs are just as dangerous as alcohol when it comes to driving. 

Only specially trained police officers, also known as Drug Recognition Experts (DREs), will handle the tests during the pilot program, the story said. In addition to the mouth swab, DREs will also look for other telltale signs of impairment, such as bloodshot eyes, unusual blood pressure, and the inability to pass a field sobriety test. Also, any driver who refuses to submit to a roadside drug test can be ticketed or taken directly into police custody.

The roadside tests can screen for a wide variety of controlled substances, including amphetamines, methamphetamine, marijuana, benzodiazepines, cocaine, and opiates, among others. In the case of weed, the machines only look for the active THC compound that’s responsible for the high, not inactive THC compounds, which can linger in a driver’s system for many weeks.

“Motorists under the influence of drugs pose a risk to themselves and others on the road,” Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, the Michigan State Police’s director, told CBS. “With drugged driving on the rise, law enforcement officers need an effective tool to assist in making these determinations during a traffic stop.”

The five counties selected for the pilot program (Berrien, Delta, Kent, St. Clair and Washtenaw) were chosen due to “the number of impaired-driving crashes, impaired drivers arrested and the number of trained officers in [those counties].”

While the roadside drug tests may be new to Michigan, they certainly aren’t new to other police forces across the U.S. More than a dozen states currently use the roadside test machines, the Los Angeles Times reported. They’re also quickly gaining popularity due to the rise of marijuana legalization in other states. Each device costs roughly $6,000 and is “about the size of a mini bookshelf stereo system.” Preliminary test results only take six to eight minutes to arrive, the Times noted.

Still, not every state has yet established legal limits around the amount of drugs in a driver’s system, which can further complicate matters for authorities. Whereas “alcohol cases are more black and white—a .08% blood-alcohol level or higher is illegal,” the article observed that even specially trained police officers have to rely on subjectivity and personal judgment with roadside drug testing.

At this point, a positive test may not even guarantee an arrest or legal action. In San Diego, for example, drivers will likely be sent to “a police phlebotomist for a blood test to determine precise drug levels.”

Regardless, the rise of roadside drug testing makes it clear that many experts believe there shouldn’t be a line between drunk and drugged driving. And as officials continue to embrace the potential of roadside tests, and lawmakers further define the legal limits of drugs, the more blurred that line will become. 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.