The Case Against Roadside Drug Tests

| by Mark Jones
Police conducting roadside drug testsPolice conducting roadside drug tests

Roadside drug testing is unjust, unsuccessful and a waste of government spending.

Five Michigan counties will soon become the sites of a yearlong pilot study to examine the feasibility and results of roadside drug tests, TV6 reports. If the pilot tests prove successful and useful, a law could be passed to allow roadside drug testing throughout the state.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Casperson, was inspired by a Michigan case involving Barbara J. and Thomas J. Swift and a logging truck driver in 2013.  Barbara and Thomas were tragically killed in the accident, and the driver was accused of driving under the influence of marijuana.

According to the Michigan State Police, 36 percent of deaths on the road occur because of drugs or alcohol. At first glance, this statistic seems like a strong case for the need for roadside drug testing.

The statistic, however, is flawed. Combining the number of alcohol-related deaths with drug-related fatalities is not a legitimate justification for roadside drug testing. According to the CDC, alcohol is responsible for 31 percent of fatal driving accidents in the United States. 

Marijuana, the drug in play in the Barbara J. and Thomas J. Swift case of 2013, is said to increase the likelihood of traffic accidents by 25 percent. However, the CDC notes that age and gender, not the drug itself, may likely account for the increased likelihood of accidents.

Given the information presented by the CDC, roadside drug tests are a waste of time and money. Alcohol, statistically, presents more of an issue, but sobriety checkpoints will remain illegal under Michigan's State Constitution, even with ongoing drug checking pilot tests. And the link between marijuana use and the risk of car crashes remains tenuous at best.

Roadside drug testing feeds into corporate business. According to research conducted by ProPublica, the money spent on drug testing in America supports more than nine major companies who supply kits to the justice department and other groups checking individuals for specific drugs. After the kits are used, many of them have to undergo lab testing to definitively prove whether an individual is innocent or guilty. 

All aspects of drug testing cost money. Is roadside drug testing a smart place to invest such large quantities of government spending?

Whether roadside drug testing is a worthwhile use of taxpayer dollars may be up for debate, but everyone can likely agree that the tests need to be accurate and fair. And knowing what we do about drug kits and traffic stops, that seems highly unlikely.

Many roadside drug kits are unreliable as they are simple and have not changed much since the 1970s. A drop of cobalt thiocyanate is applied to the substance in question. If the substance turns blue, it is cocaine.

Or is it?

Cobalt thiocyanate, a pink substance, will turn blue in the presence of cocaine. It also turns blue in the presence of some household cleaners, common medications and at least 80 other chemical compounds. It is no wonder that these $2 kits have been the source of unjustly jailed traffic violators.

Lawmakers in Michigan have said that the drug tests in the pilot study will be different. Instead of testing substances found in vehicles, trained police officers will test the saliva of suspected users. The test is still quick and easy, meaning that error is still quite probable. In order to be used as evidence in a court of law, the tests would have to go to a lab for formal testing.

In order to test a driver, a lawmaker must pull him or her over for other traffic violations. While this policy may sound fair in theory, recent events in American history suggest otherwise.

Racial profiling has been present on American highways since the Fourth Amendment came into existence. The court case Whren vs. the US challenged racial profiling of drivers in 1996, and many other court cases have done the same in the 20 years following.

Roadside drug testing increases the possibility of racial profiling. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, black drivers are pulled over more frequently than white drivers. When surveyed, just under 68 percent of black drivers believed that they were pulled over for legitimate reasons, while 84 percent of white drivers believed they had been pulled over legitimately.

These stark contrasts reveal that racial profiling during traffic stops is still a question in the minds of Americans. Allowing roadside drug testing in Michigan, or anywhere in the United States, opens the door for accusations related to racial profiling or, worse, actual racial profiling.

Without question, driving under the influence of drugs is a problem that America must confront. The issue, however, is systemic, and the answer does not lie in roadside drug testing. This issue must be dealt with before intoxicated drivers hit the road.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: TV6, CDC, GHSAThe Huffington PostBJS, ProPublica / Photo Credit: Medical Marijuana News/Flickr

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