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I-Team: Here’s how police can detect high drivers, and why it’s not fool proof

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A car is swerving, driving abnormally slow and not reacting to what’s in front of them, but when an officer pulls them over, there’s no sign of alcohol, which could means that driver is under the influence of marijuana.

The 22News I-Team also examined data from Colorado, the first state to legalize adult-use marijuana. According to the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Criminal Justice, DUI cases overall dropped 15% from 2014 to 2017.

The number of deadly car accidents where a driver tested positive for marijuana in their system increased 11% between 2013 and 2017, representing 21% of all deadly crashes last year. 

Here in Massachusetts, more than 800 drivers have been cited so far this year for driving under the influence of drugs.

Driving high has become a growing concern for police across the state, as they prepare for an influx in stoned drivers.

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper told the I-Team, the biggest challenge is detecting right away whether a driver is high. “There’s no set standard. With alcohol, we know we have that very bright line of .08, but with marijuana we don’t have that,” said Kasper.

While there’s no test to prove a driver is high, the I-Team uncovered a different type of tool, they’re called Drug Recognition Experts, or D.R.E.’s.

Jeff Larason is the Director of the state’s Highway Safety Division. He told 22News, “A Drug Recognition Expert is someone who goes through very rigorous training. It requires a certain amount of experience and skill set before they qualify to become a DRE, and then the training a 12-step process that helps them identify someone who’s impaired by drugs, what that drug is, and the level of impairment, as well.”

Larason told the I-Team, Massachusetts has 147 certified D.R.E.’s, including at least 18 officers and state troopers in western Massachusetts.

The Northampton Police Department has 3, including Officer Matt Montini, “We take blood pressure, body temperature, we check what the pupils do and how they react to light in different situations, and all of those can give us indicators as to what category of drug somebody might be impaired by.”

Officer Montini told the I-Team, he went through 3-weeks of intensive training to become a D.R.E, so the 22News I-Team went down to the department, to put that training to the test.

First up was a breathalyzer. Once I passed that, we went through the standard field sobriety test, where I had to balance and walk in a straight line, among other things.

Then came the drug evaluation test, which measures your blood pressure, pupil size and eye movement. “When someone is impaired by marijuana, their eyes will experience a lack of convergence, which is when if you’re focusing on a fixed point that moves in towards your eyes. If someone is high, their eyes will converge, then one or sometimes both of their eyes will return to a center state,” said Montini.

Officer Montini explained that the eye convergence test is one of the easiest ways an officer can determine when someone is high.  

The drug evaluation test may sound like the solution to detect drugged driving, but the I-Team uncovered a major loophole in the system: It’s completely voluntary.

“Somebody who agrees to go through the process can discontinue the process at any time. They can decline to participate,” Officer Montini said.

Larason told the I-Team, drivers who refuse a drug evaluation face no real penalty, unlike drivers who refuse a breathalyzer. “That administrative sanction is not equal for drugs. If you blow a zero on your breathalyzer, but an officer believes you’re impaired by something else, there’s no administrative sanction, there’s no implied consent for OUI drugs.”

In other words, police would still be able to take a suspected drugged driver off the road, but making a conviction stick is an entirely different story.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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