The Many Problems of Roadside Drug Screening

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The many problems of roadside drug screening

Earlier this year, the Federal Government invited 24 police officers across Canada to test a pair of devices that claim to screen drug-impaired drivers. The roadside drug screening evaluations were conducted between December 18, 2016 and March 6, 2017 and included several officers from the Vancouver Police Department.

Two devices were selected for the pilot test: the Securetec DrugRead and the Alere DDS-2. Both of these devices had been previously tested for reliability with positive results. As a result, Public Safety Canada determined both the devices were reliable and set about using them on the road.

But “reliable” is not a word that you could attach to these devices based on this evaluation.

Um, oh boy, the problems they encountered… But you wouldn’t know it from reading their press release which quotes Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale saying “this technology works,” and that it would give police more tools to detect drug-impaired driving.


Both the devices have two main components: swabs intended to be placed in the mouth of the person being tested, and a machine that the swabs plug into for drug analysis. Both devices are advertised as being capable of detecting cannabis, opiates, cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamines and benzodiazepines.

For the Securetec DrugRead, the operator’s manual suggests an officer must first split the swab into two pieces, the sample collector and a “test cassette.” The person being tested should then “run their tongue around the inside of their mouth in a circular motion three times” before the sample-collecting “DrugWipe” swab is wiped on the tongue or the inside of the cheek. When enough saliva has been collected, the swab changes colour. The swab is then reconnected with the “test cassette,” and the whole thing is placed into the screening device. The officer then presses down on the test cassette until a capsule breaks. The DrugRead screening device can then measure for the presence of drugs, a process that can take as long as eight minutes. Results will show up on the screening device’s built-in display.

The Alere DDS-2 follows a similar procedure. The officer first removes a test cartridge from its packaging and inserts the cartridge into the DDS-2 screening device. The device then confirms whether cartridge is valid, and if so, the officer can then collect a saliva sample. The collection swab is then taken out of its own packaging, and must be actively swabbed “around the gums, tongue and inside the cheek”of a subject until it changes colour. The swab is then placed into the screening device, through the attached cartridge, and analysis begins. Results are available in about five minutes, and will show up on the device’s built-in display.


Accompanying the press release on Tuesday was the report prepared by the Policy and Development Serious and Organized Crime Strategies Division. This report identified some serious issues with both the Securetec and Alere devices. Officers raised concerns that both devices require police to spend nearly 10 minutes collecting samples and obtaining results. The results themselves also suggested that positive readings were more likely to occur when the device was operated in temperatures colder thanwhat the manufacturer suggests. This happened a lot.

The Securetec DrugRead machines themselves are suggested to operate between 5° C to 40° C, while the sample collector and test cassette cartridges it uses are suggested to operate between 5° C to 25° C. The Alere DDS-2 machines have better tolerances, and were able to go down to -20° C and up to 45° C. The cartridges that go with the Alere device, however, were much worse, with the manufacturer suggesting they operate between 15° C and 25° C. Along with Public Safety Canada’s test results, this suggests both devices may have difficulty producing accurate readings during colder times of the year in much of Canada.

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