Driving While High? California Police Test for Drug Use with New Mouth-Swab Test

Police officers in California receive new mouth-swab drug test that can check for marijuana and other drug use.
A driver uses a breathalyzer as traffic police takes his breath sample to read his blood alcohol content during a night spot check in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk October 17, 2012. Ilya Naymushin/REUTERS

Police in California can now test drivers for marijuana and other drug use. The two Dräger DrugTest 5000 machines which San Deigo police debuted during the St. Patrick's Day holiday can detect the presence of seven drugs including marijuana, opioids, cocaine, amphetamine, methadone, methamphetamine and benzodiazepines.

The drug tests, which use a mouth swab to determine the presence of drugs, have already been implemented in other states where marijuana is legal as well as in Australia, Belgium and Germany since the machine's creation in 2009.

Although the machines can detect the presence of drugs, they can't determine exactly how intoxicated a driver is, unlike traditional alcohol breathalyzer machines police officers use to determine blood alcohol content level. Drivers who are found to be under the influence of drugs will still have to undergo blood tests to determine intoxication level.

As with the state's alcohol laws, drivers can refuse to undergo a Dräger 5000 test. However, if a police officer has reasonable suspicion of drug use, a driver could be forced to give a blood sample.

A driver will be given a mouth swab to rub the inside of his or her mouth for about four minutes. The Dräger 5000 will then analyze the swab using a vial of testing solution, after which the machine will print out a toxicology report and alert police if a driver needs to submit a blood sample to a police phlebotomist to determine the level of intoxication.

Figuring out how to assess drivers who may be under the influence of marijuana has been a concern of police departments all across California since Proposition 94, a measure that legalized adult use of marijuana, was approved by voters during the November 2016 election.

"The message we are sending is simply this: Do not drive while impaired by alcohol, impaired by drugs or a combination of both," San Deigo Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said during a press briefing Thursday. "And if you choose to make the wrong decision to drive while under the influence and impaired by drugs, this technology is another tool we will use to find you, arrest you and prevent you from endangering our community."

Following the passage of the law, several officers in San Deigo and other California cities were sent to Colorado to receive training on how to spot drivers impaired by marijuana use. San Diego's Dräger 5000, which cost about $6,000 each, are expected to remain at two DUI checkpoints in the city. Officers will drive people suspected of operating a vehicle while on drugs to the checkpoint, where they will then take the mouth-swab test.