Michigan’s roadside drug testing program: Inside the process

Forensic Fluids Laboratories
An employee of Forensic Fluids Laboratories in Kalamazoo demonstrates how saliva is tested for drugs.


KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A roadside drug testing pilot program now underway in five Michigan counties is leading to a bump in business for a Kalamazoo laboratory.

Forensic Fluids Laboratories is in charge of processing all of the secondary mouth swabs collected during traffic stops.

Lab director Bridget Lemberg has 30 years of experience in toxicology. She worked for Kentucky State Police for several years before eventually moving to Michigan, where she says she developed the methodology to test oral fluids in a mass spectrometer.

“If it goes to a lab and gets tested in a mass spectrometer, it’s as accurate as you can get,” she said of the drug testing process.

HOW THE PROGRAM WORKS

Officers trained as drug recognition experts in Kent, Berrien, Delta, St. Clair and Washtenaw counties are now using handheld devices to test mouth swabs immediately if they suspect a driver is impaired by drugs.

Michigan State Police Special Lt. Jim Flegel says the officers follow normal protocol and roadside drug testing is just another tool to determine if a driver shouldn’t be on the road.

“If they’re asking you to complete an oral swab, more than likely you are going to be under arrest,” Flegel said.

The swab test results are preliminary; current Michigan law only allows prosecutors to use blood, urine and breath tests as evidence in court. However, Flegel says if a DRE takes a swab, they will also ask for a blood sample, which would be allowed as evidence in court.

HOW THE HANDHELD DEVICES WORK

If a DRE asks for a swab, a driver who does not agree to being tested could be ticketed and face a $200 fine. However, an attorney 24 Hour News 8 spoke with earlier says he advises clients and relatives to decline the test.

The swab device tests for six different classes of drugs: marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, opiates, and benzodiazepine, which is a very large class of antidepressants.

The officer will ask for a second swab from the driver, but that second swab is voluntary and there is no punishment if the driver refuses.

The second swab would go to the mass spectrometer at Forensic Fluids Laboratories, where lab workers can determine specific levels of drugs in a driver’s system.

HOW LONG DO DRUGS STAY IN YOUR SYSTEM?

According to Lemberg, most drugs break down in your system within 24 Hours, but are likely only measurable 18 to 20 hours among people who take a normal dose.

“It’s kind of like what you ate for lunch; (it) won’t be there tomorrow because you metabolize it. And drugs go through the same process that your chicken sandwich does. They go through your liver and your kidneys and are gone,” she explained.

However, Lemberg says drug abusers may have traces in their system longer. She says the longest she has found drugs in oral fluid and blood has been about four days after they were consumed.

FALSE POSITIVES POSSIBLE

Lemberg says false positives are possible with the initial swab testing because of how it works with the antibodies in your immune system.

Lemberg says workers inject lab rabbits with drugs and the animals then produce antibodies. Lab workers then take blood samples from the rabbits and coat plates with the antibodies.

That’s when the saliva samples come into play. If what’s in the collected fluid attaches to the antibodies on the device’s plate, it’s a positive test result.

But consuming large amounts of cold medicines like Sudafed can lead to false positives, according to Lemberg.

She says saliva that has ephedrine in it might still attach to the plate that has antibodies for methamphetamine, giving a false positive result. That’s where the mass spectrometer comes in.

HOW A MASS SPECTROMETER WORKS

The mass spectrometers in Forensic Fluids Laboratories test thousands of samples a day, most of which are not from the roadside drug testing program. True to their name, these machines measure mass.

“This is the instrument that gets rid of false positives,” said Lemberg.

Everything has a specific mass. Lemberg says the machine separates what’s in the sample and measures the mass of each component.

Methamphetamine and ephedrine have different masses, so the machine would show different results. Lemberg says the machine can differentiate and display even low levels of amphetamine, methamphetamine or pseudoephedrine, eliminating any false positives.

Salvi testing at the lab takes 8 to 24 hours.

ORAL SWABS VS. BLOOD TESTS

Flegel says the roadside drug testing pilot program gives officers another tool in determining impairment, but research is also part of the motivation.

He says Michigan State Police plan to compile the data after the one-year pilot program ends, and then present it to state lawmakers.

MSP hope to expand the program next year to a second one-year pilot program. If the initiative proves to be effective and accurate, we could see a push to treat saliva tests as evidence in prosecuting drugged drivers.

Lemberg is interested to see how the results from the handheld devices match up with results from the lab tested swabs.

“Oral fluid is obviously a lot easier to collect than blood, and not a lot of people like needles, so I think the idea is to maybe eventually be able to use oral fluid instead of blood,” she said.

But she acknowledges it would likely take time for the court system to adjust to accepting saliva tests as reliable evidence.