Law enforcement officials are urging lawmakers to establish a roadside system to determine if a driver is operating a car under the influence of drugs. The system uses a saliva test that can measure levels of marijuana and seven other commonly used drugs. But the potential testing raises civil liberties concerns.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn is a strong supporter of the saliva testing system. He says his department recently conducted a three-month trial of this test and it achieved a success rate of 97 percent with no false positives.
Flynn says full implementation of this system is definitely needed. That's why he wants the Legislature to approve this new approach.
"We have that body of science with alcohol that is long-established I think people are accustomed to it," Flynn says. "We don't have that same level of science and understanding about the effects of marijuana."
The saliva test could be used in several different ways.
One way would be to set a specific impairment level — much like the current .08 percent limit for alcohol — for marijuana, heroin, cocaine and several prescription drugs. Drivers testing above this level would be considered impaired.
House Transportation chairman Pat Brennan says he wants to pursue this approach even if the marijuana legalization bill isn't passed.
"Given the opiate problem we have and the number of impaired stops that have been made for substances other than marijuana, I think it's important to do it regardless of whether the marijuana bill passes," Brennan said.
Allen Gilbert is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He's concerned about this approach because he says there's no scientific research to establish an impairment level for drugs the way there is for alcohol.
"Just picking a number out of the air which is what other states who have adopted this ... is arbitrary," says Gilbert. "And it's certainly going to be questioned in court by defense lawyers."
Commissioner Flynn also wants lawmakers to address the issue of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
"When you have that in your system at the same time you have alcohol in your system there's a combined effect that impairs your ability to operate safely," says Flynn. "That is one of the things that I believe we are trying to get to."
There is also another way the saliva test could be used.
The current version of the House marijuana bill sets a lower legal blood alcohol level if the saliva test reveals any presence of other drugs.
Transportation chairman Brennan thinks this approach makes a lot of sense.
"Say they were a 0.5 or above alcohol concentration and had any detectable amount of substance in their system also," says Brennan, "they would be judged impaired."
That phrase, "any detectable amount of substance," concerns Allen Gilbert of the ACLU.
"They're coming up with a standard that really doesn't say you're impaired, it's just simply saying you've got a bit of alcohol, you've got a bit of marijuana in your blood stream," said Gilbert.
The House Transportation committee plans to take additional testimony on this issue later this week.