Coming soon to Minnesota roadways: Oral tests for marijuana, other drug use by drivers

A sheriff holds up a vial of saliva
Ramsey County Sheriff's deputy Jeremy Brodin produces a saliva sample during a cannabis detection technology training demonstration in Maple Grove on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Inside a conference room at a Maple Grove shooting range, police officers from around the state gathered to test out new devices that can track traces of drugs in a person’s system using their spit.

One at a time, they’d pretend to be conducting a roadside stop. They’d rip open a foil packet and talk another officer through the process of administering the test, brushing a swab across their gum lines, much like a toothbrush, then brushing their cheeks before handing it over to be analyzed.

Starting this month, similar exercises will play out on Minnesota roadways as law enforcement officers roll out a pilot project testing a new by-mouth testing device — but for drugs.

Five months after Minnesota legalized adult possession, use and home growth of cannabis, officials said they hope the devices can act as a new tool for assessing when someone is driving under the influence.

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A large testing machine sits on a table
A Dräger DrugTest 5000 sits on a table during a cannabis detection demonstration in Maple Grove on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“If we think about decades ago when the preliminary breath test was first being introduced, this was likely the very same conversation,” said Minnesota State Patrol Chief Col. Matt Langer. “Today that device is tried and true and people believe in it and believe the results when it is used correctly.”

The tests will be voluntary and are set to be administered much like a preliminary breath test that is used to determine a person’s blood-alcohol concentration.

If a driver gets pulled over for suspicion of driving while intoxicated, an officer can first conduct a Breathalyzer test to detect alcohol in their system. If they rule that out as a possible cause of impairment, they can ask them to participate in a field test and that could include taking an oral fluid test that could show the presence of a handful of drugs in their system.

During the course of the pilot project — expected to last about a year — the results won’t be admissible in court. They can’t be used as probable cause for an arrest. Officers conducting a stop won’t be able to see the results during the course of their stop.

“It can’t be used to make that decision of whether or not I’m going to make an arrest or not,” Office of Traffic Safety Director Mike Hanson said. “It’s simply a data collection device.”

A man in a suit speaks in front of tv cameras
Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety Director Mike Hanson answers questions from the media after a training demonstration in Maple Grove on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The first testing device in Minnesota to roll out is called the SoToxa oral fluid mobile analyzer.

The devices are produced by the health care company Abbott. The group claims that they can detect six classes of drugs from an oral fluid sample within five minutes. Tests are said to detect THC — the component in marijuana that creates a sensation of being high — along with cocaine, opioids, amphetamine, methamphetamine and benzodiazepines.

The devices, along with a similar test called the Dräger, are set to become a more common fixture for Minnesota police officers this year. By year’s end, law enforcement groups hope to have concrete data they can share with lawmakers outlining the need for additional tests and a law change that allows them to be used in collecting evidence.

A person inserts a sample into a small testing device
City of Big Lake Police Sergeant Sam Norlin inserts a saliva sample into a SoToxa™ mobile testing system during a cannabis detection technology demonstration in Maple Grove on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Law enforcement in a handful of other states have piloted the tests. In Michigan, data from a pilot project showed that 24 percent of tests reported positive for drug use wouldn’t have come up as positive in a drug test.

Rob Duckworth, a program manager for SoToxa, said that’s an inaccurate takeaway. He said the oral fluid test can detect the level of recently used substances, while blood or urine might provide different results.

“It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” he said.

Langer said the state hasn’t yet tracked data for cannabis drug-related impaired driving offenses since it became legal for adults 21 and older in August. But overall drug-related impaired driving has been on the rise in recent years, he said.

A close-up of a screened-device and printing machine
A SoToxa™ mobile testing system prints the results of a sample test during a cannabis detection technology demonstration in Maple Grove on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News