Spitting into the wind

Last week the House Transportation Committee approved a bill that would allow police officers to test drivers’ saliva to determine whether drugs, specifically marijuana, are present.

The issue is problematic for several reasons. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Vermont as well as the Vermont Office of the Defender General plan court challenges to such saliva testing. The ACLU of Vermont argues that it is an invasive violation of privacy.

Matthew Valerio, Vermont defender general, has a more practical objection to saliva testing; it provides absolutely no scientific data about impairment. A saliva test only detects the presence of marijuana and other drugs.

That means that people who use medical marijuana could get flagged, as well as people taking other prescription pain medications.

And the logic of some of the committee members who voted yes on the proposal seems fundamentally flawed from a legislative standpoint. One member of the committee stated during hearings last week that she had been opposed to the law but, after hearing it would be challenged in court, decided to approve it. That’s a bizarre reason to vote for a bill.

Advocates for the bill, including Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson, support the law and argue that it provides police officers a way to test drivers who are “reasonably suspected” of being impaired by drugs.

But Vermont State Police and other law enforcement officers already take courses in recognizing impairment from alcohol and drugs. It is problematic that this bill creates a field test that has no relationship to impairment and is performed solely at the discretion of a law enforcement officer based on no scientific criteria.

Opponents argue that adopting a saliva test that fails to demonstrate impairment could lead to something more aggressive and invasive, including taking blood samples.

They argue further, that saliva testing cannot determine when marijuana was last used or how much was smoked or ingested or whether there is some degree of impairment.

Until there is a scientific way to determine degree of impairment from THC and other drugs, there’s no reason to adopt this flawed saliva testing. With more and more states legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana, the free market is going to come up with an accurate field test quickly.