By Thomas D. Anderson, Commissioner Vermont Department of Public Safety
Chief Jennifer Morrison, President Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police
Sheriff William Bohnyak, President Vermont Sheriffs’ Association
Drivers impaired by opioids, cocaine, marijuana and other drugs pose a threat to every Vermonter and visitor that drive our highways.
On July 1, Vermont will become the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana. Even proponents of legalization acknowledge that driving while high on marijuana is unwise and unsafe. There also is universal agreement on the need to protect Vermonters from impaired drivers. Legislators, both pro- and anti-legalization, recognize there is a solemn responsibility to ensure the motoring public is protected from irresponsible individuals who take drugs and then get behind the wheel of a car.
The problem is, Vermont lacks a good mechanism for testing motorists who drive under the influence of marijuana, opioids or other impairing drugs. Currently, the only way to test a person suspected of drugged driving is to take a blood sample. That process is invasive, time-consuming (sometimes taking up to five hours) and occurs well after the time of operation. There is a better way.
Oral fluid or saliva testing is a simple, painless way to test an operator suspected of driving under the influence of drugs. The test is similar to the way a breath sample is collected in cases of suspected alcohol impairment. Oral fluid testing involves swabbing the inside of a suspected drugged driver’s cheek for a saliva sample. It is quick and painless. This sample would then be sent to the Vermont Forensic Lab for testing. Scientific studies show that saliva testing is reliable and provides important evidence for prosecutors and juries. Fourteen states, Australia and several European countries have approved some form of oral fluid testing to help keep roadways safe. Governor Scott has made clear that highway safety is a critical component of marijuana legalization. And both the Governor’s Opioid Coordination Council and Marijuana Advisory Commission have recommended roadside saliva testing to combat drug impaired driving.
This requires the Legislature to act. In March, the Vermont House of Representatives passed legislation allowing for the collection of oral fluid testing when a police officer has “reasonable grounds” to believe the person has operated a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs. This is the same standard for taking a breath sample when a motorist is suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol. This legislation (H.237) is now before the Vermont Senate. Unfortunately, the Senate Judiciary Committee has voted not to send this important safety legislation to the full Senate for its consideration. For the full Senate not to take this bill up and pass it before marijuana possession and use become legal and more widespread is a loss for all Vermonters and inconsistent with a commitment to highway safety.
This bill is an important part of the state’s highway safety strategy, and its passage would ensure Vermont has a mechanism to effectively remove impaired drivers from our roadways and hold them accountable.