Original cannabis journalism for Canadians

The Leaf News takes a roadside drug test

Winnipeg Police Service Const. Stephane Fontaine shows off a Draeger DrugTest 5000 roadside screening device. (Solomon Israel / Winnipeg Free Press)

Winnipeg Police Service Const. Stephane Fontaine shows off a Draeger DrugTest 5000 roadside screening device. (Solomon Israel / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Draeger DrugTest 5000: The very name strikes terror into the hearts of Canadian cannabis users who fear the federally approved roadside drug-screening device could help send them to jail for impaired driving.

On Friday, a Leaf News reporter volunteered to be tested by the $5,000 device at a press conference held by the Winnipeg police, who were showing it off to local reporters as part of their year-end campaign against impaired driving.

The whole process took about six minutes: Less than one minute for the reporter to swab the inside of his mouth with a test kit until a colour indicator showed enough saliva had been collected, and five minutes more for the portable analyzer to process the swab. (The reporter passed, with the machine reporting negative results for the presence of cannabis and cocaine.)

Recent Canadian media coverage of cannabis-impaired driving has focused inordinately on certain flaws with the Draeger device: it reportedly doesn't work well in the cold, and has been known to report false positives.

The shortcomings of the DrugTest 5000 are definitely concerning, but before you get too worried about getting busted by Draeger-wielding cops, it's worth taking a few minutes to understand exactly how the device is meant to be used.

Failing a roadside test by the Draeger DrugTest 5000 doesn't prove impairment; instead, the device is supposed to indicate whether a driver has consumed cannabis in the preceding hours, helping police officers establish grounds to detain the driver for further testing that could prove impairment to a court's satisfaction. That could be a series of tests by an officer trained in "Drug Recognition Evaluation," a blood-THC test, or both.

In fact, a Draeger test won't even be needed to detain a driver in many cases. If a police officer pulls you over and your car reeks of weed, you've got a joint in your ashtray, or you're in the middle of exhaling a massive bong rip, an arrest is probably in your immediate future — no fancy drug test required.

Think of the Draeger DrugTest 5000 as a high-tech alternative for the traditional Standardized Field Sobriety Test, where cops observe as a driver walks along a straight line, stands on one leg, and tracks a moving object with their eyes. Police are only supposed to do those tests if they're already suspicious that a driver could be impaired, and it's no different with the Draeger.

It's only after failing one of those roadside tests — or being caught with some other kind of evidence of drug-impaired driving — that the real legal trouble starts.

The biggest concern for Canadian cannabis users who drive is the scientifically unsound nature of Canada's new federal impaired-driving law, which treats certain amounts of THC in a driver's blood as automatic proof of impairment, despite significant evidence to the contrary.

The most important legal battles over cannabis-impaired driving in Canada will be fought over that blood-testing regime, not the Draeger DrugTest 5000.


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