WSP showcases tools for identifying drugged drivers

This is the bag used by 215 drug recognition experts and law enforcement officers in the state to examine motorists for signs of impaired driving. - Brandon Macz/Bellevue Reporter
This is the bag used by 215 drug recognition experts and law enforcement officers in the state to examine motorists for signs of impaired driving.
— image credit: Brandon Macz/Bellevue Reporter

Law enforcement officers in Washington are no longer just asking drivers if they've been drinking when they're pulled over, as legalized marijuana in the state adds the question, "Have you smoked anything today?"

The Washington State Patrol on Wednesday brought in local drug recognition experts to explain the process for determining driver impairment during traffic stops for substances other than alcohol, which takes about 45 minutes and typically happens after an arrest has been made.

Bellevue Police Lt. Marcia Harnden said the effects of alcohol and marijuana are not only different, but the effects of marijuana can also differentiate among users based on factors like smoking-versus-ingesting and the potency of marijuana and its products.

"You don't know if you're drinking tequila marijuana or light beer marijuana," she said.

While 5 nanograms per milligram is the limit for marijuana impairment through blood testing, it doesn't mean a driver under the limit isn't still impaired. It is also difficult to say how soon following consumption of marijuana a person should get behind the wheel.

"Our recommendation is better to be safe than sorry," Harnden said, adding marijuana legalization occurred in Washington quickly, leaving little time for research to be done to assist police with enforcement. "I know Colorado is in the same boat as we are. It's just a matter of learning more and more."

There are five drug recognition experts within the Bellevue Police Department — 215 in the state. All DREs undergo rigorous training to be able to detect drug impairment, and Harnden said many impaired drivers tend to be under the influence of more than one drug.

Drivers have the option of refusing to take the test, which is usually done in a quieter setting than the side of the road, Harnden said. Because of the course drugs take in a person's system, blood testing should be performed within two hours of an arrest.

"In my experience, almost all of them agree to do it," she said. "… A warrant is always the safest, easiest path to go down."

Law enforcement officers are currently asking drivers a number of questions, such as medical history and physical maladies that may affect movement, as well as things like examining their eyes for dilation and muscle tensity. Harnden said Washington State University is currently developing a roadside breath test for marijuana, which could be a great asset to police.

Harnden added it has been some time since drug impairment training has been done for educators, which is an offer she recently made to the Bellevue School District.


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