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Police train to combat weed on the road


PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Police officer Nathan Scott holds a pupilometer, which can help officers recognize recent drug use by a driver. 
Dozens of law enforcement officers gathered at the Portland Police Bureau’s 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, like light.

It’s used for fitting eyeglasses — and now checking to see if a driver is under the influence of marijuana.

It’s 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 won’t be out for a few months.

But in the meantime, police are ramping up their training — including 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,” says Deena Ryerson, Oregon’s assistant attorney general and Oregon’s 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 says.

It’s false to think marijuana “just makes you a slower driver,” Ryerson says, 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 there’s anything that interferes with all of that happening, clearly and smoothly, that’s a problem,” Ryerson says. “That’s the reason we have our DUII statute.”

Among Portland’s 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 “it’s about responsible use,” Ryerson says. “It’s legal to use it. It’s not legal to be under the influence of it and drive.”

Expanding training

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.

It’s 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; they’re on track to do 20 this year because of increased interest in marijuana-related impairment, says OSP Sgt. Evan Sether, who leads the state’s Drug Evaluation and Classification program.

“Several agencies have expressed interest in all of their patrol officers or supervisors trained” in the ARIDE course, Sether says. “We’ve tried to make them available regionally, through grant funds.”

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Police officer Nathan Scott leads a class on how to spot marijuana and other drug use by drivers during traffic stops. Police statewide have been ramping up the training since marijuana legalization last October. 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 driver’s 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 there’s no cut-and-dried evidence to prove a marijuana DUII case.

Oregon has no Breathalyzer test for pot. There are a few products being tested in other states.

Even if there was a reliable way to test a person’s blood-alcohol level for marijuana, Oregon doesn’t have a legal limit for pot, as Colorado and Washington state 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 that’s often frustrating, considering the potential consequences, says Sgt. David Abrahamson, who oversees Portland’s fatal crash team.

Equipping officers with more training to recognize impaired driving is critical, he says.

“Most officers, when they see people impaired and don’t have the resources to address DUIIs, there’s this frustration,” Abrahamson says. “It happens a lot more than people realize. Officers are being hammered on the precinct level, then they see someone impaired. We lack staffing. It’s 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, he’ll 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 Portland’s 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 won’t likely take any of those steps until its Vision Zero Task Force adopts an action plan this fall. Until then, it’ll be a slow road toward building awareness.

“We’re at where we were 40 years ago with alcohol, before (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) made it what it is today,” Ryerson says. “MADD brought it to light — the real dangers and consequences.”