Do Canadian airports swab for drug residue or just explosives?
February 12, 2014 1:56 PM   Subscribe

A couple of years ago I was flying across Canada and got randomly selected for an extended search of my bags and everything swabbed. They swabbed my cellphone, camera equipment, and bags. After a few minutes they told me the swab came up positive. I'm not sure what for.

I should have asked for what, but I assumed they wouldn't say anyway. Maybe they would have. I got taken to the side and asked many questions about where I work, what chemicals I have been in contact with, and a whole list of personal info including SIN# and address. After that they took away all my liquids (even though they were packed in small containers and ziplocks and followed all rules.) and let me go on my flight. I haven't been swabbed again since, even though I have flown several times since. I hadn't been near any explosives or dangerous chemicals, although I do occasionally smoke pot and most likely there was residue on my phone. Is THC what they found on the swab? Or did I just have some random residue of something else on me that I shouldn't worry about? I would never be stupid enough to bring any pot into an airport, so its not like I could get in any trouble for having residue on me, can I? Also losing over $100 of toiletries and makeup was annoying and the delay at security was also very inconvenient. I am also not happy that my name is on some airport security list somewhere.
Besides explosives, what are they swabbing for at airport security and should I worry about drug residue from marijuana?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like by the questions they were asking you, they were concerned about explosives. Certain workplaces can expose you to substances that could trigger explosive detection equipment. (for example, fertilizer, etc.)
posted by dcjd at 2:04 PM on February 12, 2014

Through watching Border Patrol, it seems most of the time, they only swab for drugs. If they let you go on your way, it probably was a pretty low concentration.

Also, I wouldn't worry about drug residue because like I mentioned, they usually only take in those who have high readings or they have sketchy backgrounds/flying patterns.
posted by cyml at 2:04 PM on February 12, 2014

They are not swabbing for marijuana. Anything that has glycerine in it can trigger a false positive, like lotion or soap.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 2:05 PM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ms. Procrastination was traveling home from her family's farm one time when her luggage set off the explosive detector. The TSA agent, after searching her bags, told her it was likely fertilizer residue from the farm, and to make sure to clean her bags with alcohol prior to future travel to prevent it from happening again.
posted by procrastination at 2:19 PM on February 12, 2014

I travel in Canada quite a bit and have had this happen to me several times. Each time they were swabbing for explosives. I know this because a) I asked because I was tired of it and b) I cannot take drugs due to my job, so there was very little chance of any drug residue. They were quite happy and friendly to give me info, unlike TSA and Customs. I find it odd that they collected your SS# - usually they collect passport information, address, and perhaps driver's license, but perhaps it was that one person.

The agents I asked were quite happy and friendly to give me info (unlike TSA and USA Customs). If the agent who collected your information was security, not border patrol, you can request what information they have for you here. They keep all information for 3 years. Border/customs keep similar information for 6 years. And, FYI - they already have information on you in a system just simply for flying in Canada.

This link goes more in detail about the information they collect, privacy concerns, and other FAQ you might have about airport security and customs in Canada.

If it makes you feel better, even though I've been swabbed a number of times, and have had multiple instances of "trouble" going through the border (due to equipment and "clean geologic samples") I've never had a situation where it seemed like my name and information were on any kind of "list."
posted by barchan at 6:25 PM on February 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yup, Canadian Customs does use drug detection equipment. But from the questions they asked and the removal of your toiletries, is sounds more like something that pinged as explosives. Then again it might also have been that they were testing new equipment (eg from USA) and had some weird arse result they wanted to verify by other means, just been a pretext to detain you briefly because your name matched a list (see "Collection of Traveller Data" a bit down the page) and immigration or some other agency wanted time to check out your flight payment methods, previous flight history, length of stay in various locations (etc etc), or even a training exercise - eg just running some new staff members through the ropes while their supervisor watched. There's also been any number of training exercises around the world (eg from Japan) where drugs have been planted in passenger's bags and then either slipped out into the wild or during which panicked officers have briefly held passengers so that others could get the gear that the equipment/dogs didn't find.

Long answer long. You're unlikely to ever really know. If they told you the full details of what they were doing, they'd risk compromising its effectiveness.
posted by Ahab at 6:35 PM on February 12, 2014

This happened to me once! I was flabbergasted until the TSA lady asked if I had, by any chance, applied hand moisturizer that morning. Yep, I had. Apparently the glycerin in a lot of lotions will trigger a positive result for explosives in those swab tests.
posted by artemisia at 6:41 PM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Similar to artemisia, I was flagged as positive one time because some conditioner had exploded in an interior pocket of my suitcase on a prior trip.
posted by something something at 7:28 PM on February 12, 2014

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