Record drug driving incidents highlights need for more experts to identify them

As drugged driving incidents in Michigan hit record levels, law enforcement officials are calling for more officers trained to identify them. 

Drug-related accidents, injuries, and fatalities all hit record numbers in 2020, according to traffic data gathered by the Michigan State Police. The rate of fatalities alone has doubled over the past decade from 127 in 2011 to 267 in 2020

Law enforcement officials attribute much of the rise to Michigan’s recreational marijuana industry, which surpassed $2.6 billion in revenue so far in 2021, according to the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency. 

“With the legalization of marijuana, we have seen an uptick in individuals who deem marijuana to be legal and think that its use shouldn’t prevent them from driving,” said Daniel Pfannes, the deputy director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

“Many people who are driving don’t realize how intoxicated they actually are by the marijuana,” Pfannes said. “Especially after taking an edible.”

Higher THC content in legal recreational products is also affecting drivers, Pfannes

said. THC is the main chemical in marijuana that produces physiological and psychological reactions.

“Even for the people who smoke it, marijuana today is just so much more potent than the marijuana of the past,” Pfannes said. “That’s leading to an increased rate of people who are driving while impaired.”

Marijuana and other drugs are harder to detect in a person’s system than alcohol, police say. Detecting if someone is impaired by drugs requires specially trained drug recognition experts. 

Michigan has 124 of these experts spread out among state police, sheriffs and local departments, according to Lori Dougovito, a public affairs representative for the state police. These are officers who have received advanced instruction on how to identify what substance a person may have ingested and to what degree they are impaired by it.  

This is not enough to keep pace with demand, said Robert Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Most departments don’t have a drug recognition expert on the road,” Stevenson said. “So when an officer stops somebody and thinks they’re impaired, they need to call someone in.”

Other tests to determine impairment, such as blood draws, are unreliable, Stevenson said. You can’t test THC levels in the body the same way you can for alcohol.

“Part of the issue is that for some individuals a lower THC score might indicate that they are more intoxicated because their body has absorbed the THC,” Pfannes said.

Drug recognition experts can administer in-field sobriety tests other than the standard one given for drivers suspected of alcohol. They recognize physical factors like pupil size to distinguish what someone may have taken.  

They are uniquely equipped to handle cases involving drugs, said Deputy Aaron Griffin, a drug enforcement officer for the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office. 

“What separates us is that we have been through three weeks of very intense training,” Griffin said. ”

If the expert verifies that a driver is not under the influence, the charges get dropped.

“Traditionally officers would rely on the (Breathalyzer) to make their decision to arrest somebody.” Griffin said. “With drugs, you don’t always have the number to rely on. You

have to really trust your training and look for a bunch of other indicators as well.”

Griffin is one of only two drug recognition experts in Marquette County, a popular vacation destination and home to Northern Michigan University. The other is a state trooper in a rural area. 

“We are both extremely busy,” Griffin said.” ”We are constantly being contacted by other departments for assistance and typically most of our drug evaluations are done for other officers.”

Even if drug recognition training was mandated for all of Michigan’s 18,000 officers, it couldn’t happen, Stevenson said. 

“A (multiple week) training program, besides their salary being gone, we’re talking about millions and millions of dollars.”

Many departments are finding other ways to address increasingly drugged-out drivers. All new deputies in Marquette County receive advanced roadside impairment classes offered by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, said Sheriff Gregory Zyburt.

“It’s not as good of training as drug recognition experts get,” Zyburt said. “But it makes the officer more aware of who they’re dealing with as far as families of drugs like

opiates versus heroin.”

Progress is slow, Zyburt said. As deputies age out, new recruits are trained.

“The more the better,” Griffin said.