As Illinois prepares to welcome legal marijuana along with the New Year, Iowa officials say they’re concerned they’ll see an increase here in impaired driving and marijuana arrests.
“That’s really the biggest concern is impaired drivers,” said Iowa State Patrol Trooper Dan Loussaert.
“It’s primarily a public safety concern,” he added. “Smoking marijuana or consuming marijuana products impairs judgment and decision making and that can be dangerous, especially when someone is getting behind the wheel of a car. Then, they’re not only endangering themselves, but every other driver on the road as well.”
Illinois’ law legalizing recreational marijuana goes into effect Wednesday. Iowa law permits medical marijuana for qualified patients, but allows cannabis products only with a very low level of THC, the compound that produces a high.
“I expect we’ll see a number of individuals venturing over to Illinois and bringing illegal substances back,” said Iowa State Patrol Public Information Officer Sgt. Alex Dinkla. “We saw a lot of that — people driving to Colorado and purchasing product and bringing it back — when Colorado legalized marijuana, and I’m sure we’ll see that again with Illinois.”
In Iowa, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, and possession of even a small amount can lead to jail time and hefty fines.
When it comes to determining if a driver is impaired, most law enforcement officers rely on a series of field sobriety tests, as well as cues such as red and glassy eyes, the smell of marijuana or visible products or paraphernalia.
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And though field sobriety tests can effectively determine if a driver is impaired, when it comes to drugs, the tests cannot tell an officer what substance the driver is on.
That’s why some companies have started developing a breath analyzing tool that could identify some drugs in a person’s system. Seeing these devices as possible tools that could benefit officers, some agencies are considering their potential. However, Iowa Drug Recognition Expert State Coordinator with the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau Todd Olmstead said that science is not yet been proven accurate enough to be admissible in court cases.
“We’re always looking at any kind of technology that can help officers detect and combat impaired driving,” Olmstead said. “We have been watching the development of these breath-analyzing devices … (but) we are not yet comfortable with the technology.”
Though Olmstead said the Iowa Department of Public Safety will continue to monitor new technology, state authorities are not yet prepared to invest in such devices.
“And there are a few reasons for that,” he said. “First, drugs work completely differently with the systems of the body. They metabolize differently, some have half-lives, and they leave the body at different rates, plus there are so many different kinds of drugs … that it would be very difficult to make a device that can detect them all accurately.
“Alcohol on the other hand is predictable. We have done so many studies and so much research on how alcohol interacts with the body that we know exactly what happens once it’s ingested. And that’s why alcohol breathalyzers are widely trusted. But we don’t yet feel like the technology for detecting drugs has caught up with the sheer volume of drugs that are out there.”
A state trooper for 27 years and a drug recognition expert for 19, Olmstead said the most widely accepted method for determining what drugs a person might be on is a detailed examination that can be administered only by a drug recognition expert.
Training for that is intensive program that takes about a month to complete. The process for determining the type of drug includes repeated measurement of a suspect’s vital signs, a breath analysis test to rule out alcohol, interviews with the driver and the arresting officer, and checking the driver’s eyes, pupil reactions, ability to focus and balance. The test, he said, is extensive — taking 45 minutes to an hour — and boasts an 80 percent accuracy rate.
It’s a method state authorities will continue to use until the new technology is acceptable, Olmstead said.