Police train to combat weed on the road
Officers modify field sobriety test for pot; old perceptions linger
Dozens of law enforcement officers gathered at the Portland Police Bureaus training facility in Northeast Portland last week to learn a few new tricks like how to use a pupilometer.
A pupilometer is a device that measures the pupils response to visual stimuli such as light.
Its used for fitting eyeglasses and now for checking to see if a driver is under the influence of marijuana.
Its just one of the ways police in Oregon are trying to be creative in combating what they believe is an uptick in pot-related driving incidents since legalization in October.
The official data on citations for driving under the influence of marijuana wont be out for a few months.
But in the meantime, police are ramping up their training, modifying field sobriety tests for marijuana because of its many differences from alcohol.
Prosecutors are having a hard time convicting with these cases because jurors are used to seeing people look like someone impaired by alcohol drunk, falling down, obvious physical impairment, said Deena Ryerson, Oregons assistant attorney general and Oregons DUII (Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants) resource prosecutor.
Marijuana has more of a mental impariment, affects the executive functions of the brain your ability to react, perceive, she said.
Its false to think marijuana just makes you a slower driver, Ryerson said, using the example of a red bouncy ball entering the roadway.
A clear-headed driver would recognize that a child might come running after it, and immediately slow down.
An impaired driver would have a delay in perceiving the event, processing it and deciding what action to take.
If theres anything that interferes with all of that happening, clearly and smoothly, thats a problem, Ryerson said. Thats the reason we have our DUII statute.
Among Portlands most visible and tragic marijuana-related fatalities in past months was the Dec. 12 death of 38-year-old Portland cyclist Martin Greenough.
Greenough died after allegedly being struck by a driver who later admitted in court documents to smoking marijuana that afternoon.
Kenneth Britt Smith Jr., 26, pleaded not guilty to charges from the Dec. 12 crash on Northeast Lombard Street, including manslaughter, DUII, reckless driving, hit and run, and recklessly endangering another person.
Even with legalization in Oregon, people need to realize its about responsible use, Ryerson said. Its legal to use it. Its not legal to be under the influence of it and drive.
At the Portland Police Bureau training last week, officers from around the state were given an overview of how motorists are affected by drugs ranging from methamphetamine and cocaine to prescription narcotics and marijuana.
Its part of a national curriculum called Advanced Roadside Impairment Driving Enforcement, which the Oregon State Police offers to jurisdictions around the state.
Last year, the OSP ran about 15 or 16 classes; theyre on track to do 20 this year because of increased interest in marijuana-related impairment, said OSP Sgt. Evan Sether, who leads the states Drug Evaluation and Classification program.
Several agencies have expressed interest in (having) all of their patrol officers or supervisors trained in the ARIDE course, Sether said. Weve tried to make them available regionally, through grant funds.
Portland is running ARIDE classes routinely; another is scheduled for May. Washington County has four scheduled for this summer.
Proving pot DUII not so simple
Part of the ARIDE lesson is on how to modify field sobriety tests for marijuana, since impairment affects a drivers mental faculties often more than physical.
Officers are being taught to take note of specific signs related to marijuana impairment during the eye test, walk and turn, and one-legged stand such as leg tremors, eyelid tremors, or repeatedly asking to have the instructions repeated.
The officers observations at the scene are critical, because theres no cut-and-dried evidence to prove a marijuana DUII case.
Oregon has no Breathalyzer test for pot, though there are a few products being tested in other states.
Even if there was a reliable way to test a persons blood-alcohol level for marijuana, Oregon doesnt have a legal limit for pot, as the states of Colorado and Washington do. Oregon does not routinely take blood tests for DUIIs, because of a backlog at the state lab.
Officers may seek a urine test for someone suspected of marijuana DUII, but a positive result indicates marijuana use simply at some time in the past 30 or so days.
That all leaves officers with a challenge thats often frustrating, considering the potential consequences, said Sgt. David Abrahamson, who oversees Portlands fatal crash team.
Equipping officers with more training to recognize impaired driving is critical, he said.
Most officers, when they see people impaired and dont have the resources to address DUIIs, theres this frustration, Abrahamson said. It happens a lot more than people realize. Officers are being hammered on the precinct level, then they see someone impaired. We lack staffing. Its an area for improvement.
Portland Police Officer Nathan Scott, the training course manager, is also optimistic the training will help make the roadways safer.
When the data on marijuana DUIIs from the last quarter of 2015 is available, hell include it in an annual report for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
In the meantime, city and state officials are still grappling with how to address public perception about driving while high.
Leaders who called for Portlands Vision Zero initiative last summer said it would likely involve a massive outreach campaign like the Your Choices Matter billboards in New York City and similar efforts.
Portland wont likely take any of those steps until its Vision Zero Task Force adopts an action plan this fall. Until then, itll be a slow road toward building awareness.
Were at where we were 40 years ago with alcohol, before (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) made it what it is today, Ryerson said. MADD brought it to light the real dangers and consequences.JW_DISQUS_ADD_A_COMMENT