DUI While High

A new challenge for police

Erin Wilson, Editor

With 15 marijuana dispensaries in the Carson City, Washoe and El Dorado counties that make up the Tahoe area, local law enforcement has been adapting new patrol techniques to better detect drivers under the influence of marijuana since the adult-markets launch in July.

In early 2017 recreational and medical marijuana became legal in the state of Nevada, meaning consumers over the age of 21 (or 18 with a medical card) can purchase up to 1 ounce of flower or 1/8 of concentrate at a time with a 15 percent tax added on to every purchase.

Recreational marijuana is proving to be a lucrative industry, topping $37.9 million in sales in the month of October alone. The popularity of legal cannabis raises new concerns for the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office about the danger of its use by children and teens, and by drivers.

“As with all of Washoe County, I would say that at this point, our primary concerns are the potential for increased marijuana-related DUI (driving under the influence) and the potential for increased use among minors,” Bob Harmon, Public Information Officer for the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, said.

Recreation marijuana sales in Nevada have exceeded expectations, earning approximately $20 million in tax revenue since the market’s launch. But does more dispensaries translate into more stoned drivers?

“There is definitely a potential threat, but much depends on the tangible factor of human behavior within the industry and by the public,” Harmon said. “We will continue to work closely with both state and local government, as well as the marijuana industry, to monitor and hopefully mitigate all possible impacts to public safety.”

Although recreational marijuana is now legal for consumption for people over the age of 21, cannabis is for private use only. It is still illegal to consume marijuana in public, on federal land or in a vehicle.

According the Nevada law, violation of public consumption laws in Nevada are punishable as a misdemeanor, with potential sentences up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, community service and possible DUI. Drivers whose blood is tested are considered impaired if THC is measured at 2 nanograms per milliliter or above, but officers can base arrests on driver observations.

“Marijuana affects everybody differently, so driving high could be more dangerous for some people,” said a Sierra Nevada College junior who wished to remain anonymous. “In my case, my motor skills do not become impaired while smoking, so no, I don’t think driving around town is particularly dangerous. Especially since there are only two traffic lights and a maximum speed limit of 35mph everywhere in Incline.”

According to herb.co, there are a number of components that can make someone more susceptible to physical impairment from the effects of marijuana. Tolerance is the most evident element that affects how users react. The more cannabis someone uses, means they will develop a higher tolerance, which then allows your body to get used to the plant and gradually become less sensitive to its effects. Cross-fading or mixing marijuana with alcohol or other substances can speed up someone’s impairment while driving because alcohol absorbs THC faster enabling its effects to work faster. Everyone processes the herb differently due to our unique biochemistry. Our biochemistry controls things like mood and genetic mutations and can explain why some people have increased memory loss while using cannabis or why some people feel more paranoid, anxious or experience psychotic situations.

When is it safe to drive?

Confirming marijuana impairment is more complicated than confirming alcohol impairment for police enforcement, according to a study conducted by AAA. It seems as if no one has a conclusive answer about how long someone should wait before getting behind the wheel after consuming cannabis.

“I would never say that driving high is a safe means of transportation, but the potential safety risk of driving high is incomparable to the severity of destruction that could result from drunk driving,” Caroline Coughlin, an SNC senior journalism and digital arts major, said.

Law enforcement is adapting to the legalization legislation. Washoe County Deputies are implementing new training courses to better understand what signs to look out for when patrolling for high drivers.

“In addition to DUI and Drug Recognition training, our deputies also participate in Advance Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) training,” Harmon said. “The ARIDE program specifically focuses on training deputies to recognize and articulate the signs of impairment related to drugs, alcohol, or a combination of both.”

Signs deputies look out for include bloodshot eyes, swerving, broken taillights or other traffic violations. They also look out for slightly protruding veins on the driver’s neck.

After being pulled over, if a deputy notices and identifies any signs of impairment during initial contact with the driver of a vehicle, the deputy’s next step is to conduct a Field Sobriety Test.

“If a driver fails the FST, the next step is the preliminary breathalyzer test. We will attempt to do a breath test for alcohol in all cases of suspected impairment, even if drugs are suspected to be the actual cause because many DUI cases involve a combination of alcohol and drugs,” Harmon said.

If a driver refuses or is unable to complete a breathalyzer test, if marijuana or other drugs are suspected to be the primary cause for impairment, or if deputies are unable to to complete the breath test, a blood test is then requested. Blood tests have been proven to be more accurate than urine tests that were requested in the past. Urine tests can show substances in a body that were taken weeks ago, when blood tests can confirm whether or not the driver contained substances in their body at the actual time of the incident.

Harmon said the sheriff’s office has not yet obtained new technology for drug-related impairment, but Nevada Highway Patrol has recently implemented the Draeger Drug Test 5000 while patrolling around the main thoroughfares in Incline Village, State Route 28 and Mt. Rose Highway.

Patrol Sgt. Eddie Bowers of Nevada Highway Patrol explained to Reno’s News4 that the device can be used used on a suspected drug impaired driver and tests the individual’s oral fluid for seven different types of drugs. After 8 minutes, the test can determine whether or not a driver has cannabis, amphetamines, opiates, cocaine, metabolites, benzodiazepines or methadone in their system, but not the quantitative amount.

Without being able to determine a measureable amount of a substance, the clarity of this new technology can’t conclude how impaired someone is, but can determine a positive or negative result that they either or impaired or are not.

Law enforcement in Incline Village are adapting to the reality of legal weed. “The sheriff’s office’s primary concern is public safety,” Harmon said. “NuLeaf (Incline Village’s only cannabis dispensary) is a legitimate establishment that is being operated legally. We are aware of its existence and we have not encountered any problems that I’m aware of to date.”

Because of NuLeaf’s central location in Incline, one can’t help but wonder what the dispensaries views are on the safety of its recreational customers.

“We believe in keeping our roads safe and people who are under the influence of marijuana should not be driving,” Eli Scislowicz, NuLeaf general manager, said. “We’re local, we’re invested in the community and we want everybody to consume responsibly.”