How One Police Department Took the Green Out of St. Paddy’s Day

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On March 17, the San Diego Police Department rolled out two new mobile drug testing machines in the city’s historic Gaslamp District, an area known for its nightlife and the home of an annual St. Patrick’s Day block party.

The DrugTest 5000 tests oral swabs for cannabinoids, opiates, amphetamines, cocaine, benzodiazepines and methadone. The devices are rechargeable and portable, weighing in at about 10 pounds and approximately the size of a home coffee maker.

The DrugTest 5000, manufactured by German manufacturer Dräger with U.S. operations based in Irving, Texas, hit the market in 2009 and is currently in use in about a dozen U.S. states, Europe and Australia. A California judge in 2016 found the machines to be scientifically reliable in a vehicular manslaughter case.

Photo Courtesy of Draeger Safety Diagnostics, Inc. via Facebook
Photo Courtesy of Draeger Safety Diagnostics, Inc. via Facebook

To use the machine, once an officer has determined a driver is possibly impaired, an oral swab is self-administered and loaded into the machine by the officer. Within several minutes, separate positive or negative results for each drug type are given. The device does not determine the level of intoxication, only if the substances tested for are present or not. Those testing positive are also given a blood test to confirm the result and to determine the level of intoxication.

Drivers are not required to submit to the field test, but can still be arrested on suspicion of DUI and be required to submit to a blood test for intoxicants under California law. Refusal to comply results in automatic suspension of one’s driver’s license.

To publicize the dragnet and the debut of the machines, SDPD hosted a press conference at the Ingraham St. Bridge on Mission Bay, a frequent location of SDPD DUI operations. Chief of Police Shelley Zimmerman said “It’s a huge concern of ours with the legalization of marijuana that we’re going to see an increase in impaired drugged driving.”

The chief also took to social media to get the word out. A post from her Twitter account featured a picture of two pair of handcuffs laid in the shape of a four-leafed clover against a green background, along with a message warning of “maximum DUI enforcement.”

Zimmerman’s warnings may have been an effective buzzkill.

The new machines were used at a DUI checkpoint in the downtown Gaslamp District on St. Patrick’s Day evening. According to reports, 1699 vehicles passed through the checkpoint and six arrests were made, down from 17 during a similar operation held at the same time last year. SDPD did not distinguish between arrests made for alcohol or drug use or how many of the arrests, if any, were the result of the use of the DrugTest 5000.

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