Debunking the 5 Biggest Myths Around Oral Fluid Drug Testing
Written by Brian Shaffer   

Recent headlines have been awash with news on THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)breathalyzer concepts—which are used to detect the presence of cannabis or marijuana—exploring their anticipated use for detecting impairment during roadside stops. This isn’t a surprise, given that 30 states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized marijuana possession to some degree or another. While the technology behind them is feasible, THC breathalyzers must navigate significant hurdles to achieve scientific validation that speaks to their efficacy for this application.

In reality, the technology that is making the most impact for law enforcement during roadside impairment checks is oral fluid drug testing. A non-invasive, quick alternative to collecting urine or blood samples, these screenings test for many of the most commonly abused drugs. Oral fluid testing has been widely studied and proven to be scientifically valid. Most offerings provide officers with everything they need for a first assessment about recent drug use, on the spot.

While more than a dozen states currently use oral fluid drug screenings, and a growing number of jurisdictions are using those results for driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) investigations, there is still a lot of misinformation about the technology—even within the law enforcement community. In fact, most of the myths surrounding oral fluid drug testing are simply not true.

Myth #1

Oral fluid screening technology will detect drugs consumed days or weeks ago.

False. Oral fluid drug screening technology that is fit for law enforcement primarily detects the psychoactive ingredients that are actively metabolized by the body. While urinalysis can detect the inactive metabolites of drugs taken up to 30 days prior, oral fluid tests detect the presence of recently used (consumed, inhaled, snorted, injected, etc.) drugs that are still active in the blood and potentially causing impairment.

The window for detection is more closely related to the time when a person is most likely to be affected by a drug. This makes oral fluid drug screenings ideal for roadside stops because they test for the components that are most relevant for impaired-driving investigations.

Myth #2

This type of technology can only be used to detect THC.

False. Oral fluid screening technology tests for more than just marijuana—much more. The most sophisticated technologies test for the presence of cannabis (THC), as well as opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines, benzodiazepines and methadone. As cannabis becomes more widely legalized in the U.S., it’s critical that law enforcement has an easy-to-use, versatile, accurate tool to detect not only THC impairment, but also the use of other highly dangerous and addictive drugs among drivers during roadside stops.

Myth #3

All oral fluid drug tests are the same.

False. While there are dozens of oral fluid drug tests on the market, many are simply rebranded urinalysis devices. These type of offerings are not scientifically optimized for oral fluid, have questionable accuracy and produce results that need to be interpreted by the testing officer.

In reality, there are only a few oral fluid drug test offerings fit for law enforcement applications. They are sophisticated instruments that have undergone extensive testing and scientific validation and do not require the interpretation of results; they simply tell the testing officer if there is a presence of psychoactive components or not.

Myth #4

Oral fluid is not accurate.

False. When taken, most drugs move from the blood into oral fluid via passive diffusion. As we discussed above, oral fluid drug screenings are highly accurate for detecting psychoactive ingredients of commonly abused drugs. In one recent study, one of the better-performing oral fluid drug screening devices achieved overall accuracy of 98.9% versus oral fluid laboratory confirmations.

What I am not saying is that oral fluid screenings are the be-all, end-all for impairment detection—far from it. Rather, as a preliminary screening, they are highly effective tools for on-site, presumptive checks, which should be followed up with a laboratory confirmation test—typically blood or oral fluid. Frankly, the most accurate tool to combat DUID remains the law enforcement officer. These heroes are providing their very important observations of impairment. This can come from special officer training available from the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) and Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) programs—or even from thorough articulation in a good old-fashioned arrest report narrative.

Myth #5

Oral fluid drug screenings are not typically conducted in the U.S.

False. Today, 14 states allow for the use of oral fluid drug screening. While statutory support of the screenings is in its infancy (expect to see much more done here within the next five years), law enforcement within these states are actively using oral fluid screenings during DUID investigations by presenting voluntary admonitions for subjects to provide a sample.

Prosecutors, legislators, and judges are taking note of oral fluid screenings and these test results will likely become standard for DUID investigations, and in some instances prosecutions. In fact, in a landmark case late in 2015, oral fluid drug test results were found to be scientifically reliable in a Kelly-Frye hearing for a vehicular manslaughter case in California. The judge’s decision allowed for the defendant’s results to be presented to the jury.

Internationally, several countries—including Australia, Belgium, and Germany—are leading the way on oral fluid drug screenings and have adopted them as principal toxicology evidence in DUI cases.

Compared to blood or urine, oral fluid collection is much less invasive for the subject and less hazardous for the police officer. It can be collected closer to the time of the incident and doesn’t require a separate facility, same-sex collector, or phlebotomy training. Scientifically reliable devices exist today to help law enforcement better identify drugged drivers and, most importantly, continue to ensure public safety.

About the Author

Brian Shaffer is the bid & tender manager for Draeger Safety Diagnostics, Inc.

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