Companies to capitalize on coming crackdown against drugged drivers
Felix Comeau could soon be rubbing his hands with glee. His company stands to make millions of dollars selling a device that could make it easy for police to determine whether drivers are high on drugs.
But the suit-wearing CEO wants to be sure everyone knows he’s interested in more than just money.
“It’s useful not only for us in the commercial sense,” he says, standing in one of his company’s labs in a suburb of Toronto.
“It’s useful for the police. They have been looking for, waiting for, a tool that can be used at the roadside effectively, efficiently and accurately to determine whether a person has drugs in their body.”
Canada’s Department of Justice has commissioned a scientific evaluation of drug-screening devices from three manufacturers, including Comeau’s “DrugWipe” product.
All three have just been given the green light to move forward to the next stage of the approval process.
‘Stick out your tongue’
Comeau is happy to demonstrate for a CBC News camera crew how the “DrugWipe” works, ripping open a foil wrapper to pull out the plastic cartridge. Different versions of the device test for the presence of various drugs, including cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamines and opiates.
“The policeman just asks the driver to open his mouth, stick out his tongue,” he says, pointing out small pads on one end of the cartridge, “and the pad is wiped over the tongue.”
A few minutes later, lines show up in a tiny display window on the device, indicating which drugs have been found in a driver’s saliva. And what happens if drugs are present?
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“Then the policeman gets to arrest you,” says Comeau with a smile.
Comeau’s company, Alcohol Countermeasures Systems Inc., built its business selling breathalyzers to test for booze. But now he and many other business people see a massive opportunity in drug-related testing tools.
Ex-Mountie goes from drug busts to drug business
“I think in every generation we come across a monumental shift in society that offers a business opportunity,” says Kal Mahli, a former RCMP officer from Vancouver. After years with the force’s marijuana enforcement team, Mahli is developing a marijuana breathalyzer. So far he’s raised $2 million in investment for his fledgling firm, Cannabix.
“The marijuana industry is a business opportunity that’s growing into a trillion-dollar industry. But we also believe that developing a tool like ours, to ensure safety on the roads, also offers a multibillion-dollar opportunity.”
Both the RCMP and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police have been vocal about their desire for improved technology to crack down on the deadly problem of stoned drivers.
“We do have programs out there such as drug recognition training for officers, but police need more tools and techniques,” says RCMP Insp. James Taplin, who is in charge of National Traffic Services. “It’s been difficult to go for a criminal charge. And that’s the beauty of these devices. If we get the legislation to support roadside oral fluid screening, we’re hoping that there would be a legal limit for drugs.”
Finding the legal limit
In a darkened room at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, research is already underway to determine where a legal limit for marijuana should be set. A small office houses a massive driving simulator; computers and large screens surround the driver to simulate driving perspectives.
Study participants smoke a real marijuana cigarette or a placebo version before taking a drive in the simulator. Their reactions are then tracked and analyzed.
“We are looking at the effects of cannabis on driving simulator performance to see how it affects psychomotor performance and the various aspects of the driving task,” says Robert Mann, the senior scientist who is leading the CAMH study. “And we’ll be relating that to levels of THC in blood.”
Police in the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S. are already using drug testing devices during roadside stops. Most use the devices that the federal Department of Justice asked to be evaluated here. The next phase of the approval process will involve confirming that the devices work in Canada’s most extreme weather conditions.
New era for DUI charges
“We do it for alcohol, why wouldn’t we do a similar thing for drugs?” asks Doug Beirness, vice-chair of the Canadian Society of Forensic Science, the group that conducted the research for the Justice Department. “The problem is of equal magnitude. What we need is something to help police officers to get these people off the road.”
According to the latest data from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada, 35.6 per cent of fatal crashes in 2012 involved drivers who had been drinking alcohol, while 40 per cent tested positive for drugs. Beirness notes there is overlap between those two groups; some drivers had both drugs and alcohol in their system.
In the group of drug users, cannabis was present in almost half the cases, 45.5 per cent.
While it may seem that the Liberals’ promise to legalize marijuana prompted the review of roadside drug tests, the Justice Department confirms the evaluation began in 2014, well before the change in government. The department declined an interview with CBC, but most of those connected with the evaluation process say it was spurred when officials became aware of the testing devices and their use in other countries.
Legislation to legalize marijuana is not expected to be finalized quickly, but enforcement officials point out that existing impaired driving legislation covers both alcohol and drugs.
Comeau, Mahli and countless players in the business of diagnostic devices are eagerly awaiting expanded legislation that will give police the ability to demand saliva samples at the roadside. Drug users, take note.