The 12 Steps of a Drug Recognition Evaluation

Man taking part in Drug Recognition Evaluation physical coordination tests


Tomorrow (October 17) will be one year since recreational marijuana was legalized across Canada. There were fears at the time that decriminalization would lead to an influx of cannabis-impaired drivers on the roads. The problem, however, is that testing for cannabis impairment can be quite difficult.

While the government-approved drug-detecting devices such as the Draeger DrugTest 5000 for police use, they are not always reliable and don’t necessarily show whether a person is actually impaired to drive. So Bill C-46 put forward another solution: the Drug Recognition Evaluation Program (DRE).

I covered the DRE program in a series of blogs. I thought now, as we approach Canada’s canna-versary, would be as good a time as any to take another look at how the evaluations are carried out.

What is the Drug Recognition Evaluation Program?

The DRE has its origins in the Drug Recognition Program which was developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the LAPD in California in the early 1970s. Its purpose is to identify drivers who are impaired, determine whether the impairment is a result of drugs or medical condition and if it is due to drugs, the category or class of drug causing the impairment.

Officers who undergo the necessary training are taught that they are effectively doctors for the purpose of administering the test. In Canada, a DRE officer’s testimony is accepted as an expert opinion.

Here is an overview of the Drug Evaluation Program.

The 12 Steps

Just like the road to recovery, there are 12 steps to a Drug Recognition Evaluation. For more information on each step, what can go wrong and how they could be improved, follow the link provided.

  1. Breath test for alcohol

The first step is a breath alcohol test. This is to rule out alcohol as the cause of a person’s suspected impairment. Officers cannot easily tell if someone is impaired by drugs so they first conduct a breath test. If the breath test reveals alcohol the officer must ask themselves if the alcohol explains the impairment. Regardless of whether they think it does or it does not explain the impairment, they are trained to continue with the remaining 11 steps to determine whether they are also on drugs.

  1. Interview of the arresting officer

In many cases, the officer who arrested a suspected impaired driver is not trained in the DRE program and, therefore, cannot administer the test. So another suitably trained officer has to first interview the arresting officer.

In the interview, the DRE officer must ask the arresting officer about the driving behaviour, the appearance of the driver, and their behaviour.

  1. Preliminary Examination and First Pulse

Once the interview is done, the DRE officer is ready to start the evaluation. At this stage, the DRE officer conducts a preliminary examination and takes the first in a series of pulses.

According to the training, the purpose of the preliminary examination is to determine whether the person is suffering from any injury or medical condition unrelated to the use of drugs.

Under the Canadian version of the DRE, the preliminary examination consists of three things: measuring the pulse, determining whether pupils are of equal size and whether the eyes have even tracking.

  1. Eye Examinations 

Once the preliminary examination is completed, the DRE officer conducts more complex eye examinations. They consist of three types of test: horizontal gaze nystagmus, vertical gaze nystagmus, and lack of convergence. The results of these examinations are said to help the DRE officer determine whether a person is impaired by a drug and identify the class of drugs that is causing the impairment.

  1. Psychophysical tests

The next step is the psychophysical tests. The goal is to measure any impairment of driving ability by assessing the individual’s physical and cognitive condition. This consists of four tests: the Modified Romberg Balance Test, the One Leg Stand, the Walk and Turn, and the Finger to Nose test.

  1. Vital signs and second pulse

The first pulse was taken during the preliminary test stage. The reason for taking the pulse several times, in theory, is to get multiple points of data so that those that support drug use can be relied on and not rejected as anomalies or outliers. In practice, the stress and anxiety caused by the test itself and being in police custody likely leads to higher pulse rates.

As well as the second pulse, the DRE officer will also check other vital signs, specifically blood pressure and temperature.

  1. Dark Room Examinations

After the eye tests in step 4, the DRE officer conducts more eye examinations in a dark room. The purpose is to test the pupil’s reaction to various sources of light: total darkness, near darkness, and “room light”.

However, the phrase “room light” is confusing because light conditions vary depending on which room you are in and factors like the sources of light, the proximity to those sources and the angle of proximity, all affect the condition of the light.

  1. Check for muscle tone 

The next step in the DRE is to check the subject’s body for muscle tone. The rationale behind this is that some drugs will make your muscles rigid and some will make them flaccid, and that will help the DRE officer determine the class or category of drug that a person has taken.

In Canada, this step is combined with Step 9.

  1. Check for injection sites and third pulse

This step involves police checking for any signs of injection sites on a subject’s body such as on their arms or even between their fingers and toes. As far as cannabis-impaired driving is concerned, checking for injection sites is a pretty pointless exercise. The DRE officer will also take a pulse for the third time.

  1. Subjects Statements and Other Observations

This involves the DRE officer asking the subject direct questions about their drug use as well as making their own observations. The DRE officer will factor these into the next step.

  1. Analysis and Opinions of the Evaluator

Once they have completed all of the above steps, the DRE evaluator must give their analysis and opinion. The officer considers all of the evidence thus far and comes to a conclusion as to whether the subject is impaired due to drugs and if so, the class and category of the drug causing the impairment.

  1. Toxicological Examination

The toxicological examination consists of a urine or blood test. If they return positive for drugs, this can be used to support the DRE officer’s opinion and be used as evidence of impairment.

So there you have it, the 12 steps of a DRE. If you read my blog posts you will see that you should not take each stage at face value.

90 thoughts on “The 12 Steps of a Drug Recognition Evaluation”

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