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Lansing — Michigan lawmakers have approved a one-year state police pilot program for officers to conduct roadside saliva testing on suspected drugged drivers.

Michigan State Police would select five counties for the pilot program, and the tests could only be conducted by officers who completed specialized training. A positive test could lead to an on-site arrest for drugged driving, which is already illegal but can be difficult to assess.

“This has been needed way back when I was a police officer for 31 years,” said sponsoring Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, a former sheriff. “You’ve got to have a way to test for drugs, and this is a simple saliva system — it’s a little plastic spoon with a sponge on it, you put it in a test tube and in a few minutes you know if somebody’s on cocaine, heroin, meth or marijuana.”

Critics say marijuana, in particular, can be detected in a user’s system long after it may impair motor skills, but Jones says he is confident “the science is there.”

State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, disagreed. While the tests may accurately detect levels of certain drugs, Irwin said the science is lacking when it comes to direct connections between chemical levels and actual impairment.

He pointed to a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study released in May concluding there is no data showing drivers reliably become impaired at a specific level of marijuana in their blood.

“I don’t like the idea that based on bad science we’re going to require people to submit to these tests under penalty of sanctions,” Irwin said. “We don’t know what impairment means, and if people refuse, they’re going to get penalized.”

The legislation, which was given final approval Thursday, was amended in the House to lower penalties for drivers who refuse the roadside saliva test from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction.

“If we’ve got a pilot program, how do we know it works?” said Rep. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township, an attorney who proposed the amendment. “Let’s see if we get the bugs shaken out of it first.”

Lucido said the civil infraction would be consistent with suspected drunken drivers who refuse a Breathalyzer.

“If you nick somebody, you nick them with a civil infraction. You don’t gouge them with a misdemeanor,” he said.

The legislation passed the House 69-39. The Senate, which approved an earlier version, sent the latest version to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk in 27-10 vote.

It’s not immediately clear what counties would be selected for the program, and state police did not respond Friday to a request for comment. The legislation requires that a participating county must have at least one law enforcement agency with a certified drug recognition expert.

As of late 2015, Michigan had 84 specially trained officers working in various agencies who were trained to identify physical signs of impairment during roadside stops. Under the new program, those officers would carry a swab-based detection kit with them.

The program would costs state police roughly $30,000, according to the House Fiscal Agency, including $6,000 a piece for a series of “oral fluid drug detection apparatuses” and about $25 for each roadside kit.

The drugged driving bills cleared the Legislature Thursday, the same day as House-approved medical marijuana reform legislation again stalled in the Senate, which adjourned for summer without voting on a three-bill package to regulate dispensaries, create a seed-to-sale tracking system and expand the definition of “usable” marijuana to include non-smoking forms of the drug.

The latter bill, which would extend protections to patients who use edible forms of medical marijuana, would require a two-thirds super-majority vote because it would amend the state’s 2008 voter-approved law.

Jones, spearheading the package through the Senate, said the votes were not there for the “medibles” bill but believes he has secured simple majority support for the other bills.

Senate Republicans discussed the package in closed-door caucus meetings multiple times this week. Discussions are expected to continue into the fall.

Medical marijuana dispensaries would be formally recognized, regulated and taxed under the legislation, which supporters say would clear a legal haze surrounding storefront retailers.

Dispensaries or other marijuana facilities would only be allowed to operate in communities that authorize them by enacting a local ordinance.

Gross retail income would be taxed at 3 percent, with revenue going to local governments, county sheriffs and the state’s general fund. Dispensaries would also be subject to licensing and regulatory fees.

“We’re going to bring this medical marijuana world into the world of legality, where it should be, and ensure the patients are getting a safe product,” Jones said.

A 2013 ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court empowered county prosecutors to shut down marijuana dispensaries, which were not referenced in the 2008 law approved by voters. But pot shops have continued to proliferate in some cities, including Detroit, where local official enacted their own regulations in the absence of state guidance.

“I think it’s something that we still need to understand for our cities and communities,” said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, “where they can have the ability with local control to do a lot of these things and help do their best to keep it out of the hands of kids and make sure it’s done in the right way.”

Patient advocates opposed potential changes in the Senate, including language that would see Michigan treat medical marijuana like alcohol by creating a “tiered” system with separate licenses for growers, distributors, dispensary retailers and safety testers.

They’re now back to supporting legislation that Jones said would still include the tiers but allow exceptions for companies that want to create specialized marijuana or products. The senator noted strains that include lower concentrations of the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

Jones called the final product a “craft beer model.”

“We hope that we’ll have a pharmaceutical-type product, similar to what they have in Canada but still allow a grower to specialize in something like making sure we have a product for children that has certain characteristics,” he said. “We don’t want them to get high, we just want them, for instance, to take care of their epilepsy.”

Medical marijuana patients and advocates gathered in the Capitol earlier this week hoping for movement on the long-stalled package before legislators left town for summer break.

Ida Chinonis of Grand Blanc said medical marijuana is a uniquely effective treatment for her 7-year-old daughter, Bella, who has a rare congenital disorder caused by a missing tip on her first chromosome.

She gives Bella oral drops of two marijuana-based oils from Nature’s Alternative in Detroit that are tailored specifically to control her daughter’s semi-frequent seizures.

“She’s been on it for a year and a half now, and since we added the second oil, she’s been seizure-free for three weeks,” Chinonis said.

While she is able to obtain the marijuana medication, Chinonis said the legal uncertainty regarding dispensaries and non-smoking forms of the drug leaves her at risk of criminal prosecution.

“I want to know we’re protected,” she said. “There’s nobody to take care of her. If they put me in jail, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Willie Rochon, vice president of the Michigan Cannabis Development Association, said the business advocacy group was “deeply disappointed” the Senate did not take up the legislation this week.

The Legislature is expected to return for a three-week session in early September.

“It’s unfortunate lawmakers in the Michigan Senate missed a key opportunity to protect patients and create much-needed revenue for local communities. We intend to continue fighting and advocating until this legislation passes,” Rochon said in a statement.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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