Sarah Leamon: Feds considering a second roadside-screening test that can't measure cannabis impairment

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The federal government has announced its intention to approve another roadside drug screening device. 

The Abbott SoToxa is currently under a 30-day public consultation period and could be approved for use by police as early as May 19. If it is, it will join the Draeger DrugTest 5000 as one of only two federally approved drug screening devices in Canada. 

But what do we know about the Abbott SoToxa?

The short answer is not much…yet. The company that produced the SoToxa, Alere, was recently acquired by Abbott, a health-care manufacturing company based in the U.S.

What we do know about it, though, is that it has been largely touted as a better device than the Draeger DrugTest 500, which received a relatively frosty reception from police agencies across the country when it was introduced last August.

But how do they stack up? 

Here are six things you need to know.

Both use saliva samples to test for a variety of drugs

Although roadside drug screening devices were introduced for use in this country following the legalization of cannabis, they can test for more than just THC.

The SoToxa is capable of testing for THC—the psychoactive component of cannabis—as well as cocaine, methamphetamines, opiates, methadone, amphetamine, and benzodiazepines. 

The Draeger may have one up on the SoToxa, as it also tests for all of these substances, plus ketamine.

Remember—driving while impaired by any drug is a criminal offence in this country. Drug-impaired driving is not just limited to cannabis use, although there are specific provisions under the Criminal Code to deal with cannabis exclusively.

This is what the hand-held Abbott drug-testing device looks like.
ABBOTT

The SoToxa is much smaller

When it was first introduced, many people were shocked with the Draeger DrugTest 5000’s appearance. After all, it is relatively large and looks more like a Keurig coffee maker than drug-testing tool. This can make it clumsy and awkward to use on the roadside and in unsecured environments.

The SoToxa, on the other hand, looks much easier to use. With a hand-held, portable design, it looks lightweight and compact.

There is little doubt that police officers will prefer its design over the Draeger's.

Some police may be familiar with the SoToxa

In the year leading up to the passage of Bill C-46, which allowed the use and approval of roadside drug testing equipment for the first time in Canada, Health Canada ran pilot projects with select police detachments across the country. They asked police to use two different devices—the SecureTech and the Alere—and to provide them with feedback about their functionality in the field.

When neither of these devices were approved, many people were shocked. After all, the feedback had been largely positive. 

Prior to the government’s approval of the Draeger DrugTest 5000 in August, 2018, little had been known about the device. It had not been used in the pilot projects and Canadian police were unfamiliar with it.

But in 2017, Alere, the company that manufactured one of the handheld drug testing devices evaluated by police in the pilot projects, was acquired by health-care giant Abbott. This acquisition may have somewhat delayed the availability of its products.

It appears that the device developed, manufactured, and previously branded as Alere has now been reborn as the Abbott SoToxa. 

While it is unclear at this point whether it has made any minor tweaks or adjustments to the device itself, chances are high that at least some police officers will recognize it when it hits the streets later this year.

The Draeger DrugTest 5000 inside the pouch looks a bit like a Keurig coffee maker.
DRAEGER

Both devices have operational limitations

One of the main concerns with the Draeger has to do with its narrow operational temperature range. The device only works in temperatures between 4 ° and 40 ° C. 

This means that when temperatures drop, so does the device's reliability. The Draeger has been known to produce both false negative and false positive readings when operating outside its temperature range. 

For at least six months of the year, this is a big problem for the vast majority of the Canadian population.

While the SoToxa boasts a wider operational temperature range, with the company claiming that it can work in cold weather, it is not clear exactly what its definition of “cold” is just yet. 

Chances are that, much like the Draeger, the device will be unable to withstand the extreme polar cold of our far northern regions.

The SoToxa works faster

Analyzing a salvia sample at the roadside takes time.  

For the Draeger, it can take upward of eight minutes. 

Legal experts and lawyers, myself included, have opined that this may be too long to be consistent with established rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After all, the roadside testing process is meant to be a relatively quick process. 

In order to be legally valid and consistent with the charter, motorists should only encounter minimal delay. Eight minutes may be a few minutes too long.

The SoToxa is able to analyze salvia samples in about five minutes, shaving approximately three minutes off the Draeger’s best time. 

However, the question remains as to whether or not a delay of even five minutes will be permissible under our laws. In the end, it simply may not matter (as explained below).

Neither device can test for impairment

That’s right—neither the Draeger nor the SoToxa can actually test for drug impairment. They just don’t work that way. 

The only thing the devices can do is detect the presence of drugs in a saliva sample, which tells us absolutely nothing about impairment. This shortcoming will be the biggest problem for either device when its use is eventually and inevitably challenged in a court of law. 

It’s simply a hurdle that—in my humble opinion—neither of them can overcome.

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