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What we don’t know about Canada’s first roadside drug test

After the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s mid-February J-Talk discussion about cannabis coverage in the journalism industry, I decided to investigate some of the new laws surrounding cannabis use in Canada.

The CJF had invited five of the country’s most experienced cannabis reporters to describe what they were doing and why it mattered. In the words of the event organizers: “The cannabis industry’s influence is far-reaching, affecting public health and safety, policy-making, the economy and talk of a ‘pot-com’ bubble. As various issues get worked out post-legalization, what challenges do journalists face in informing the public in a responsible manner?”

Manisha Krishnan, one of the CJF panellists, who has covered cannabis for VICE Canada since 2015, said that one of her main concerns is the new impaired driving laws included in Bill C-46 proclaimed into force by the federal government on Dec. 18, 2018. While these new laws aren’t directly targeted at cannabis consumers, some of the rules and regulations do directly targeting them.

One such regulation is the implementation of roadside drug tests by police officers. Testing positive on one of these devices would enable a police officer to detain someone on suspicion of being impaired.

These laws and the conversations surrounding them struck me as fascinating. From what I had been reading about Bill C-46, and what the cannabis reporters said the night of the J-Talk, it appears that roadside testing has caught the government off-guard. The new rules reflect little or no real research or preparation, either to protect the average non-cannabis-consuming person from people driving while high, or to protect a recreational cannabis user who is not impaired from over-zealous police. For me, the biggest issue is that the amount of THC, the intoxicant in cannabis, allowed is obscenely small compared with how much alcohol Canadians can consume and still get behind the wheel. Drinkers are legally allowed 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood whereas cannabis users can be charged if .02 nanograms of THC per millilitre–or two to the power of negative six, i.e. 0.002 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood–show up in their system.

So I set out to take a closer look at the drug testing rules. More specifically, I looked at the Canadian government’s decision to use a piece of roadside drug testing equipment called the Draeger DrugTest 5000.

The government’s choice to use the Draeger is confusing from an outside perspective. In 2016, Public Safety Canada began the process of choosing the first drug-testing equipment to be used by Canadian law enforcement. They kicked this process off by launching a pilot study of two roadside drug testing devices made by two foreign diagnostic testing companies: the Securetec DrugRead made by Securetec Detektions-System AG of Germany, and the Alere DDS-2, developed and sold by Alere Toxicology Plc of Oxfordshire in the UK, a company now called Abbott Labs. According to the final report of this study, police officers found both these testing systems reliable and easy to use.

The pilot study ended with recommendations for device standards for roadside drug testing equipment – standards to which the Draeger, made by the Canadian arm of a German company that also makes breathalyzers, does not seem to live up.

The first of these standards, “a high reliability in extreme cold temperatures”, to quote from Public Safety Canada’s pilot study, has been the cause of much of the controversy surrounding Draeger’s device. The Draeger system has a recommended operating range between four and 40 degrees Celsius. In a country like Canada, where temperatures dip far below this range for a good chunk of the year, the choice to use this system immediately seems baffling. However, the concerns don’t end there. The device standards also recommended that Canada’s cannabis breathalyser have the “capacity to analyze samples in eight minutes or less.” CTV News, followed by a number of other Canadian news outlets, have reported that the Draeger can take up to four minutes to collect a swab sample, and then up to another 10 minutes to analyze it.

The controversy doesn’t end there. A widely-cited study from the Journal of Analytical Toxicology shows the Draeger had a false positive rate of 14.5 per cent for cannabis and 13.5 per cent showed false negatives, meaning the cannabis in their system was not detected by the device.

Why was a device with an abysmally high rate of both false negatives and false positives chosen over devices that were already tested for use with positive results? As much as I would like to provide the answer, I can’t. I have spent much of this final term as an undergraduate journalism student and editor of Emerge web magazine working on this story. As of the final deadline for this 2019 publication I no organization has given me a satisfactory answer.

All I can do is speculate and hope that more people begin asking questions.

Editor-in-chief of the Emerge online magazine. Loves to talk about public policy and is also a huge research nerd.

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