The Vermont House has given initial approval to a bill that would allow law enforcement officers to administer a saliva test that would indicate the presence of certain drugs, including marijuana.
Right now if a police officer has reason to believe that a person is driving a car under the influence of alcohol, they can pull the driver over and ask the person to take a Breathalyzer test to measure their blood alcohol level. If the driver's blood alcohol content is .08 or higher, they are sent to the police station and administered a blood test that more accurately measures their blood alcohol level.
But backers of this bill say there's no comparable roadside test to determine if a person is impaired because of the use of certain drugs — and they argue one is needed.
"We have an opiate crisis. We have a drug crisis. We just legalized marijuana .... We have no roadside test for drug impairment," said Colchester Rep. Pat Brennan, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation.
Under current police protocols, if a police officer has "reasonable suspicion" that a person is driving impaired, the driver could be given a series of roadside tests as an initial screen of sobriety.
If they failed these tests, but the officer did not think that alcohol was a contributing factor, then under this bill they could ask the driver to take a saliva test.
This test would not measure an impairment level, but would confirm only the presence of several drugs in the driver's system.
Burlington Rep. Barbara Rachelson opposed the bill because she said merely detecting the presence of a drug like marijuana doesn't mean the driver was impaired, because pot stays in your system for a long time.
"One of the main catalysts for this is the marijuana bill and that is the least reliable of what the saliva tests for, because it — so it will capture if the drug was used within ... possibly seven to 30 days depending on what you read and people's individual sciences,” said Rachelson.
But Clarendon Rep. David Potter reminded Rachelson that the saliva test is administered only if the driver has failed other roadside impairment tests.
"If the person gets out of the car and does sobriety tests and passes them all, there's no impairment — who cares what drug they're taking or may have used five days ago or anything else,” said Potter. “The key in this whole process is you have to have a series of observations of impairment."
The measure will come up for final approval in the House on Friday. The outlook for the legislation in the Senate is very uncertain because previously the Senate has not gone along with efforts by the House to use a roadside saliva test.
Update 9:34 a.m. 3/2/2018 This post was updated to clarify the current police protocols as far as roadside testing versus what this bill would allow.