Police struggle to ID drivers on drugs

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BY MADDY O’CALLAGHAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — There’s drunk driving. 

And then there’s drugged driving. 

One is highly discernible through roadside tests.

One is not.

But police departments across the state are working on how to best identify someone driving under the influence of drugs. 

Col. Joseph Gasper, the State Police director, said his department has focused on how to identify drugged driving for a number of years, but the recent legalization of pot has increased its importance.

“We are working on programs to make sure our law enforcement officers are best prepared to handle these kinds of situations,” Gasper said.

Mecosta County Sheriff Todd Purcell said his department has gotten more experience with identifying drug driving in recent years because of the opioid crisis. 

Many of his officers now go through Advanced Roadside Direction Training (ARIDE), which gives them a better idea of what people look like when they’re impaired by different drugs, including marijuana. 

Purcell said stops for driving while high work similarly to those for people who drive drunk. 

First the driver must show signs of impaired driving, and then once an individual is pulled over, the officer can look for signs of driving while high, he said.

Officers often look at the eyes for signs of pupil dilation and redness, and Purcell said that the smell of marijuana is often a giveaway. 

Blood tests are necessary, but Purcell said that once it’s proven that an individual has THC in his or her system, an arrest and successful prosecution are still complicated. 

THC is the chemical in marijuana that causes psychological effects. 

“It all still goes back to the fact that because there is no threshold for how much can be in the system, you have to prove [in court] that THC did impair the driving to the point of intoxication,” Purcell said. 

Though currently no roadside chemical tests exist, the State Police is running a pilot Oral Roadside Fluid Testing Program that the Lake County Sheriff Department is part of.

The county department is piloting the program for a year, and the State Police will use the data to decide whether to implement it across the state, according to John Herrell, the sheriff’s department public information officer.

The Escanaba Department of Public Safety is also participating. 

Currently, only officers who have gone through the three-week Drug Recognition Expert Training can use the tests when they believe someone is impaired, Herrell said. 

“Hopefully, it will get implemented and we can use it to enforce the law,” he said. “I believe that driving under the influence of drugs is as big of a problem as driving under the influence of alcohol.” 

For now, Herrell said his department is trying to have all its officers complete ARIDE training. 

Purcell, whose department isn’t part of the pilot program, said he also hopes fluid testing is accepted but worries that it will be a long process through the courts before that happens. 

While the program is in the works, Purcell’s officers will be sticking to ARIDE training, despite its complications.

“[ARIDE] has to be good enough, because right now that’s all we really have,” Purcell said.