State has fewer than 90 officers trained to identify high drivers

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A push to legalize recreational marijuana could be coming to Rhode Island before the end of the legislative session this summer.

It’s a move that Gov. Gina Raimondo has banked on, as she included tax revenue from marijuana sales in her proposed budget for the coming year. It’s also a move that adamant proponents and hesitant supporters alike have said makes sense, since neighboring states have either already done so (Massachusetts and Vermont) or are in the midst of doing so (Connecticut and New Hampshire).

That doesn’t mean the process will be straightforward, of course. Law enforcement officials and politicians from all sides of the spectrum have raised concerns about keeping marijuana – in all of its various forms – out of the hands of children.

There is also a second rallying cry from those hesitant about going for full recreational marijuana legality – how do you prevent or catch people who get behind the wheel and drive while they’re high?

As opposed to people who drive while intoxicated by alcohol, identifying those who are driving while under the influence of marijuana is not a simple process. There is no test akin to a breathalyzer to find out if somebody is actively high. Even if a suspect consents to a blood test, the mere presence of THC – the psychoactive compound in marijuana that causes a user to get high – does not necessarily prove anything since THC lingers in the body, meaning they may have used marijuana days or even weeks ago.

“That’s a problem. Knowing we don’t have a test today, we at least have to have a lot more people who can identify this problem,” Attorney General Peter Neronha said during a recent interview. “And that’s true whether we legalize or not, because Massachusetts is so close. But certainly, if we legalize … we have to be ready.”

A unique set of skills

“It’s going to cause issues. It already causes issues,” Rhode Island State Trooper L.J. Fiorenzano said while discussing the possibility of marijuana legalization on Tuesday. “If and when it becomes recreationally legal to use marijuana, I think crash rates could increase.”

Fiorenzano, a 10-year veteran of the State Police, has a unique perspective when it comes to the subject. Since 2013, he has been a drug recognition expert (DRE), meaning he is qualified and certified to assess whether a suspect is under the influence of any number of different controlled substances – from inhalants and opiates to marijuana.

Officers who are not trained DREs can make an arrest following a traffic stop involving a suspected impaired driver using the three approved sobriety tests – and Fiorenzano said that people under the influence of drugs, including marijuana, are likely to fail at least two of those, the walk and turn and the one-leg stand tests.

However, once the suspect is taken back to headquarters or a State Police barracks, trained DRE is needed to conduct an evaluation and determine what they are under the influence of.

This process takes anywhere from 35 to 45 minutes, and involves a questioning portion, additional specified sobriety tests and physical examinations such as taking of temperature and blood pressure. This evaluation is conducted only with the consent of the suspect, but refusing will land them with a refusal to submit to a chemical test charge, similar to if they refused a breathalyzer.

Despite the difficult assessment process, Fiorenzano emphasizes its effectiveness.

“The program works. About 80 percent of the arrests for DUI are a direct result of police officers or troopers making the car stop,” he said. “It's not easy, but with more training and experience, you're able to tell the person is impaired or under the influence of something … All of these tests are scientifically proven.”

But in short supply

Despite the efficacy of the DRE process, drug recognition experts are scarce in the state. Of approximately 220 troopers who patrol the state’s roads every day, Fiorenzano is one of only 19 certified in drug recognition.

Fiorenzano said across the state, among all the officers serving on local municipal police departments, there are only 70 other DREs.

There are a few reasons for those low numbers.

“I think to train people to be drug recognition experts would take some time, and frankly, it’s going to take money,” Neronha said.

Becoming a trained DRE involves two weeks of classroom training and one week of training in the field, actively identifying individuals who are under the influence of various substances, followed by a written test. During training, an officer’s shifts must be covered by somebody who will likely be earning overtime.

The classroom training also normally takes place out of state, meaning hotel accommodations for 10 nights must be made. The week of field training, interestingly, normally takes place in Arizona, according to Fiorenzano, due to the high number of people brought in while under the influence of various drugs there. This requires departments to purchase airfare and additional hotel stays.

Without factoring in the cost of paying overtime for the officer’s replacement, or the cost the department must eat paying them their salary while attend the training, Fiorenzano said each certification costs between $3,500 and $4,000.

Additionally, there is no minimum requirement for any amount of DREs on the State Police or any local department, and there are no financial incentives for municipalities or police departments to get more officers trained in drug recognition.

However, Fiorenzano believes a moral motivation should inspire departments and officers to request the training.

“There is no extra incentive to do it, monetarily,” he said. “But I personally think the incentive to do it is to get impaired drivers off the roadway. We’re protecting our families, we’re protecting our friends, we’re protecting other law enforcement officers. There’s a passion to get out there and arrest impaired drivers and protect the safety of everyone else.”

Fiorenzano said there is “no magic number” of DREs that the state should strive toward in order to adequately deter tragedies stemming from impaired drivers, but that making additional funding available to train DREs would benefit Rhode Island.

“If they can bring proceeds from marijuana to go toward law enforcement, I think that would be one benefit for law enforcement,” he said. “I think that the more officers we have specifically trained to deter the actions of these people, the better off everybody’s safety is going to be.”

As for Fiorenzano’s fears that crash rates could increase with the legalization marijuana, the jury is still out due to insufficient data. There is no adequate data to show whether or not crashes have increased in Rhode Island due to Massachusetts’ legal sales, which kicked off in November 2018.

From a national perspective, research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) published in early 2019 looked at Colorado and Washington – which both legalized in 2012 and have had full, legal marijuana sales for approximately five years – as well as Oregon (legal sales since October 2016) and Nevada (legal sales since July 2017).

The data showed a 6-percent increase in vehicular crashes in these states as opposed to neighboring states where marijuana remained illegal recreationally. However, that could simply be a case of correlation versus causation – there is no definitive conclusion that drivers impaired by marijuana were the specific cause of that uptick.

For context, a similar study in July 2017 published in the American Journal of Public Health found no significant difference in vehicular crash fatalities in Washington or Colorado in the time since legalization.

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