By Skyler Ashley
Bath-DeWitt Connection Staff Reporter
DEWITT — DeWitt has been facing difficulties in regards to “drugged driving” i.e., driving while under the influence of drugs.
The crime is classified as Operating While Under the Influence of Drugs (OWID) and problems arise for police officers, because there does not exist a simple test for sobriety akin to a Breathalyzer.
Police officers must know the symptoms of the various highs in order to make an effective arrest.
“Prescription meds, heroin, it’s all so prevalent now. In this county, it’s getting to be that 10 percent of our intoxicated drivers are intoxicated under the influence of drugs. We see it steadily going up,” DeWitt Police Chief Bruce Ferguson said.
It is not just prescription medication and drugs that are causing trouble on the road, inhalants such as computer duster have also been worrisome.
In 2015 from May to October, there were 5 deaths across Michigan that all involved huffing while driving.
Ferguson remembers DeWitt itself suffering a similar incident in 2012, involving the death of a teenager due to inhaling computer duster.
Tragically, he had turned to homemade methods of intoxication, as he could no longer use alcohol due to the preliminary breath tests required by his probation.
Circumventing alcohol probation has also been a common risk factor for drug abuse.
“It’s not bizarre anymore; it’s getting pretty commonplace,” Ferguson said.
As drugs become more and more prevalent, especially opiates (which saw a steady rise in prescriptions from 1991 to 2011), so do fatalities from abuse, whether or not they involved automobiles.
In fact, overdose deaths are now surpassing traffic accident deaths in general. In 2013, the Center for Disease Control reported 43,982 overdose deaths (51.8 percent related to prescription meds), while the National Highway Safety Administration reported 32,719 deaths from auto accidents.
“It’s astronomical,” Ferguson said.
Given that data, it’s no wonder drugged drivers are becoming more of a problem.
It’s not just intoxication from a single drug either; the prevalence of dangerous cocktails composed of various meds has been on the rise.
University of Michigan Research Professor Sean McCabe found this to be true in his fieldwork.
“The majority of high school students that reported past year NMTU [non-medical tranquilizer use] also reported co-ingestion of a tranquilizer and another psychoactive substance. It’s definitely alarming,” McCabe said.
“It’s the trifecta [sic] now: the painkiller, the muscle relaxer, the opiates,” Ferguson said.
These drugs are reaching the streets of towns such as DeWitt through people selling off their prescriptions, or through criminals stealing prescription pads and writing phony prescriptions for pills that are commonly sold and abused.
In 2014 DeWitt had its own case of stolen prescription pads being used in local drug trafficking, which was eventually handled federally.
The problem has hit locally and the police department has not let it go ignored.
The DeWitt Police Department has been involved in raising awareness of these problems, hoping to combat the apparent shift in culture that’s lead towards growing drug abuse.
In 2013, the department was involved in a summit on prescription drug abuse at Lansing Community College. Those attending the summit included representatives from the Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Michigan Department of Human Services and U.S. Attorney for the East District of Michigan, Barbara McQuade.
The summit’s goal was to increase education and awareness amongst law enforcement about the growing trend of prescription drug abuse.
Ferguson himself has made personal efforts in combatting the problem, when he first became police chief of DeWitt he brought Project ALERT to the DeWitt School District.
Project ALERT is similar to Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), but targets seventh-graders instead of fifth-graders.
While the police may not be able to single-handedly repair the environment that produces drug abuse, they are still required to handle its symptoms and the big issue right now is drugged drivers.
“When culture changes, we have to change with it. This is one of those issues that we have to adapt to. We have to be able to identify those folks [drugged drivers],” Ferguson said.
Police officers in DeWitt have been receiving training to recognize the signs of a person under the influence of substances beyond alcohol.
Most often, the incriminating factor is a distant stare in the driver’s eyes.
“I call it ‘the gaze,’” Ferguson said.
The police first observe a problem with their driving and go from there with an interview and a field sobriety test.
If the suspect passes a Breathalyzer, yet is clearly intoxicated and the officer obtains probable cause, they are then driven to the hospital to receive a blood test.
Blood tests are given due to the law that allows police officers to gain a search warrant on blood.
The Supreme Court, in the case Schmerber v. California, put this law to the test in 1966.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the police as they determined that the wait for the search warrant could lead to the destruction of the evidence.
Michigan State University Associate Professor of Law, Mark Totten said:
“If a police officer has probable cause to believe a person is intoxicated, an officer can secure a blood sample from the arrestee without first obtaining a search warrant if doing so would cause the destruction of evidence–namely, the natural dissipation of the intoxicant from the person’s blood stream. If a police officer can obtain a warrant before the destruction of evidence–and advances in technology allow police to obtain such warrants more quickly than in the past–they are required to do so. Typically, an officer will obtain this sample by taking the arrestee to a medical facility and having a trained medical professional take the sample.”
While the problem is a national one that the DeWitt Police Department does not have a complete blanket solution to, they are not allowing naivety on their part to exacerbate the problem.
The entire department is becoming educated and trained to combat drugged driving.
Local Brian Gordon said:
“It’s sad that so many people have turned to these kind of drugs. They’re for people with really specific medical issues and they [users] don’t really know the kind of damage they’re doing to themselves mentally and physically. Also, I think if people are turning to it because of their probation, maybe probation should be restructured.”
As years go by and ugly trends the country wish would subside remain prevalent, it is clear the problem cannot simply be ignored–even in small towns like DeWitt.