First-ever summit works to find solution to drugged driving
East Hartford — In Connecticut and states across the country, a “perfect storm” of sorts is brewing, and it’s likely to only increase the rate at which drugged drivers are getting behind the wheel.
The ingredients, Ohio toxicologist Robert B. Forney explained Tuesday at the state’s first-ever Drugged Driving Summit, are easy to point out: an opioid crisis, an aging, prescription-taking population and multiple states’ legalization of marijuana.
But the steps to minimizing the storm’s impact, as people from law enforcement, public health, prosecution and other disciplines quickly learned at the conference sponsored by the state Highway Safety Office and AAA, aren’t so simple.
It’s a problem that’s been seen across the state, Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner Dora B. Schriro said, highlighting an example from summer: When troopers responded to a vehicle that had pulled over on the side of Interstate 84, she said, they found a father slumped over the wheel — the result of an overdose — and his little boy passed out in the backseat — the result of a hot car with its windows up.
“It has to stop now,” Schriro said, calling on everyone in the room to work together toward the cause.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, studies commonly link marijuana and prescription drugs to drugged driving crashes. However, the role of marijuana, often used with other drugs, isn’t always clear, and whether prescription drugs were used as directed or illicitly isn’t always specified.
Nationally, there’s not yet a good system of data collection for drugged driving, either, said Jake Nelson, who oversees traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA.
If police pull over someone who’s clearly under the influence of alcohol, many officers are unlikely to spend the time and resources to see if someone also was using other drugs, he explained.
On top of that, the tests they might order if they did — urine and blood — aren’t necessarily good measures of how impaired a drug might have made someone.
Take marijuana, for example. It’s hard to tell from a urine test when someone may have used the drug because THC in some form can stay in one’s system for weeks. And, according to Forney, blood tests aren’t any better: unlike alcohol, a person feels marijuana’s high once the drug makes it to the fatty tissue in their brain — not when its levels are highest in their bloodstream.
There likely won’t ever be a measure for marijuana and other drugs that’s as simple as blood-alcohol content is for alcohol, Forney said. That’s in part because people need only nanograms of many drugs to get high, and measuring that can be an arduous task.
Numbers such as a blood THC level of 5 nanograms in Washington, where marijuana use became legal in December 2012, are "arbitrary," Nelson said, and could result in the conviction of someone who isn't impaired.
Still, crash data from 2014 show that the percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes who'd recently used marijuana went from 8 percent to 17 percent in one year in Washington.
As such, organizations including AAA are advocating for trained Drug Recognition Experts, or DREs, to help complement whatever blood tests might reveal.
If a blood test shows a trace of THC, for example, and a trained DRE can confirm someone’s behavior was in line with that of a person who’s high on marijuana, the hope is the combination will be enough to secure a conviction in court.
According to state Department of Transportation DRE Coordinator Ed Hedge, DREs undergo more than 120 hours of initial training — including up to 60 in the field — so they can recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs other than or in addition to alcohol. DREs also can rule out medical conditions and specify into what category or categories a person's drug use likely falls.
Right now, the state has 31 trained DREs, including some stationed at state police Troop E in Montville and municipal departments in Waterford, Montville, Norwich and Groton Town.
Groton Town Master Patrolman Albert Martinez said he's put the DRE training to use six times since June, each time following a 12-step evaluation in a controlled setting that includes checking regular vitals, measuring pupil size and looking for signs, such as injection marks or rawness inside the nose, that can indicate drug use.
The nearly 16-year veteran of the department said he anecdotally had noticed a decrease in drunken driving and an increase in drugged driving, but now he sees it “in HD.”
“Now I can do something about it, get them off the road and get them help if they need it,” Martinez said. “After (the arrest), I always talk to them: I say 'you need somebody, something to get you down the right path.'”
Groton Town police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr., who said he’s already seen the benefit of Martinez’s training, said he plans on training more DREs once funds allow it.
“We’re talking about a critical issue,” Fusaro said. “Driving while impaired, it’s a significant public safety hazard.”