Law enforcement practices were changed forever once portable breath testing devices were created. These machines allowed police to measure the blood alcohol content of suspected drunk drivers during a traffic stop, instead of arresting the suspect and taking him or her to a different location to perform the test.
Now, there's word that a similar breakthrough has been made with regard to testing for other illegal substances like cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin. But is it really as groundbreaking as the media makes it out to be?
The development was revealed in the Journal of Breath Research last month. According to Olof Beck from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, researchers have created a small device than can analyze a person's breath to detect the presence of about a dozen controlled substances. The device, which consists of just a microparticle filter and a mouthpiece, reportedly detected drug usage by 47 patients at an outpatient drug rehabilitation clinic with an accuracy level of 87% - even 24 hours after the drugs were consumed by patients.So it's only a matter of time before devices like this one are being used by law enforcement officers in Washington, right?
Not so fast. In addition to regulatory and legislative hurdles which will inevitably have to be addressed, there are still three major issues that must be resolved.
- 1. The filter used in the testing must be analyzed for evidence of drug use by mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography laboratory tests. The machines that actually carry out these tests are quite large and aren't portable. So even though police may be able to administer the breath test for drugs, they won't be able to obtain an immediate result without getting the filter tested elsewhere. Therefore, an officer must still rely on longstanding criteria when determining whether to place a DUI suspect under arrest after a roadside stop.
- 2. Since officers will have to transport the filters to another location or testing after a test is administered, the possibility arises that the evidence could become contaminated between the time the sample is obtained and the time it is analyzed. This could jeopardize criminal cases against suspects accused of driving under the influence.
- 3. The tested device currently only detects whether or not certain drugs are present - but cannot compute the precise concentration of any given controlled substance. While the mere presence of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine in a person's system is enough to sustain a DUI charge, this is not the case with marijuana in Washington. Since the state's legalization of the drug last November, drivers are allowed to operate a vehicle if their THC level is lower than 5 ng per milliliter of blood equivalent - which cannot be ascertained using the device tested in Sweden.
While the Swedish study makes for interesting reading, there's much more work to be done before roadside testing for illegal substances becomes a reality in Washington.