Rifle cops ready for new stoned driving limits | PostIndependent.com

Rifle cops ready for new stoned driving limits

Mike McKibbin/Citizen Telegram
Staff Photo |

In a few days, things may get even busier for patrol officer Garrett Duncan with the Rifle Police Department.

He’s the only trained and qualified officer in Garfield County – outside of Glenwood Springs – that can identify if a driver is likely impaired or under the influence of drugs.

On July 1, a marijuana driving limit in Colorado will take effect that would direct juries to rule someone is impaired by marijuana if their blood test contains more than 5 nanograms per milliliter of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient.

The new limit was called for by Amendment 64, the state constitutional amendment approved by voters last year that legalized the private use of small amounts of marijuana by adults 21 and older. The state Legislature approved the driving limit as part of the regulatory system required by the amendment.

Police will still use the same observation methods to identify, stop, question or test stoned drivers as they do for those who have been drinking. Drivers will have to agree to have their blood drawn, but could lose their licenses if they refuse a blood test.

Testing takes time

After a traffic stop, detecting if someone has smoked or ingested pot is more involved than determining if someone has had a beer or an alcoholic drink.

“You don’t end up a sloppy drunk” if pot is the substance involved, said Duncan.

“With alcohol, we have the .08 [blood alcohol content] limit” to determine if someone is under the influence of alcohol, said Police Chief John Dyer. “The five nanograms limit is something where if we suspect it might be involved, we’ll have to call Garrett out.”

Duncan, a Rifle officer since 2005, said he uses several “tools in the box” to determine if a driver is impaired or under the influence of drugs.

“There’s driving actions, observation of the driver and driving skills,” he explained. “If I suspect someone might have used marijuana, we’ll go to the police station and sit down” for more testing.

“It’s really the totality of all the tests and observations, mostly,” Duncan said. “It’s things like blood pressure, the size of their pupils, whether they have track marks, burned fingers.”

Comparing his observations and test results to those of a sober driver leads Duncan to determine if someone should be arrested. The penalties for driving while impaired or under the influences of pot are the same as alcohol.

Duncan is also a K-9 officer, and his dog is trained to detect drugs so should be a help in catching someone driving after smoking pot.

“It’s a lot harder to hide alcohol in a vehicle than it is drugs,” he said.

Since he finished his training, Duncan said he had been called out “about five or 10 times” to determine if a driver had used drugs.

“Not a lot of them were in Rifle,” he added. “I helped the [Garfield County] sheriff’s office and some other police departments.”

Gradual increase

in offenses likely

Dyer said he anticipated a gradual increase in the numbers of drugged drivers due to the new pot limits.

“We deal with substance abuse problems all the time, and that won’t change,” he added. “But my personal opinion is that when you legalize something that wasn’t legal before, it lessens the perceived harm from using what used to be illegal. So I believe use [of pot] will rise.”

Duncan said law enforcement as a whole should plan to educate the public on the affects of marijuana and driving.

“I’ve had some people tell me they had no idea it could impair their ability to drive,” he said. “They learned the hard way that just because the feeling of being high is gone doesn’t mean it won’t affect their ability to drive a car.”

Time is the main issue Dyer said will likely be the main challenge when the marijuana driving limit takes effect at the first of the month. Duncan said a DUI stop with roadside sobriety tests can take about 20 minutes, while a drugged driving test can take two hours or longer.

“Then you have all the paperwork involved, so it’s likely around four or five hours,” Dyer noted.

Dyer hopes to have more Rifle officers undergo the training needed to be a qualified drug recognition expert, such as Duncan. That training is conducted by the Colorado Department of Transportation, and Duncan finished the course in six months.

“The main thing is getting the time off and finding someone to cover your shift,” he said of the time involved.

Education, enforcement planned

Dyer said the Rifle department has received grants to pay officers overtime for specific DUI enforcement efforts in the last half of the year, and that should also help catch drugged drivers.

“We’ll do compliance checks if we get any recreational marijuana businesses,” Dyer added.

Duncan said he’s interested to see how the state’s marijuana driving limit develops, since it’s unique in the nation.

Washington is the only other state to legalize small quantities of marijuana for adults. Alaska’s Supreme Court ruled in the 1970s that private, in-home use of marijuana was allowed under the state’s right to privacy. However, federal courts still consider possession or use of marijuana to be illegal in that state and all others.

“It’s brand new; we’re out here in the wild, wild west,” Duncan said.

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