COOS COUNTY — Typically when a person is pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence of intoxicants it’s because of alcohol, but with the legalization of marijuana South Coast officers are seeing more cannabis-related DUIIs.
According to an Oregon Liquor Control Commission report, around half of all drivers evaluated by drug recognition experts (DRE) tested positive for THC intoxication in 2015. That rate rose considerably from 2013.
“In the future we’re going to see a lot more impaired driving issues with cannabis,” Coos County Sheriff’s Office deputy Sean Sanborn said.
Police use a variety of tests— including breath, urine or blood samples — to determine whether or not to issue a DUII for a controlled substance.
However, for a majority of DUII cases in Coos County, police don’t rely on blood tests.
Those are reserved for more serious accidents.
Deputy District Attorney Jenna Wallace has been at the District Attorney’s office for two years and said she’s only had one case- a vehicular assault- where a blood sample was sent off.
“Typically the cases that I’m seeing we’re not doing blood draws unless there’s a vehicle crash and they took blood at the hospital,” Wallace said.
That’s because the Oregon State Crime Lab isn’t equipped to test blood for controlled substances, so samples have to either be sent to the Washington State Crime Lab or a lab in Pennsylvania.
That can be costly, especially if the case goes to trial.
Wallace said the legalization of marijuana creates new challenges from a prosecutor’s perspective.
“Controlled substance DUIIs were difficult to begin with, but now with the legalization of cannabis you now have to convince a jury that ‘yes the state made it legal, but if you’re impaired it’s still illegal to drive,’” Wallace said.
She said the attorney’s office prosecutes by using an officer’s observations as testimony and backing those up through tests.
“When you get that .11 BAC that’s just confirmed everything that officer’s seen up until that point,” Wallace said, “You have this officer that’s trained and experienced in how to detect both alcohol and controlled substances and inhalants.”
The officer she’s referring to is a Drug Recognition Expert or DRE.
DREs are specially trained to recognize impairment by things other than or in addition to alcohol.
Sanborn is a DRE with the Coos County Sheriff’s Office.
He said the DUII process is the same up to the breath test.
“After the breath test is when the DRE program kicks in,” Sanborn said.
If someone is arrested for a DUII, they’re taken to one of the police stations and given a breathalyzer.
Based on those results, the officer might call in a DRE if the blood alcohol level doesn’t match the person’s impairment.
“We don’t look at a person and say ‘OK, you’re under the influence of this drug,’ let’s say for example methamphetamine,” Sanborn said, “We look at them and we evaluate them and we can classify them under one of seven broad categories.”
Those categories are depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, dissociative anesthetic, narcotic analgesic, inhalant and cannabis.
The DRE program is intensive, requiring more than 100 hours of training to be certified.
As part of that training, participants hit the streets of Portland with experienced DREs trying to find individuals who are impaired and ask them to volunteer.
In return, volunteers are offered cigarettes, food and blankets.
“You get to see some things that you don’t get to see in Coos County,” Sanborn said.
He said he’s seen what people look like when they’re on various drugs such as bath salts, heroin, and methamphetamine or after they’ve huffed gas or paint thinner.
In Coos County, he said he’s seen someone under the influence of dextromethorphan, an active ingredient in cold medicine.
However, Sanborn said alcohol still makes up a majority of DUII arrests.
One issue with cannabis-related DUIIs in particular is the lack of education, according to both Sanborn and Wallace.
Sanborn said people are educated about the effects of drinking and driving, but not so much smoking and driving.
He said the legal limit of .08 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) is common knowledge.
“As a state, we’re going to have work on doing that same education with cannabis,” Sanborn said.
Wallace echoed that sentiment.
“The difficulty now has been educating the public,” Wallace said, “It’s still not okay to be under the influence (of cannabis) and drive.”
Recreational marijuana was legalized in Oregon in 2015, but a THC blood concentration limit wasn’t set like in Washington and Colorado.
Instead, the state relies on officers like Sanborn to determine whether or not someone is under the influence.
For Sanborn, the number chosen by the two states is arbitrary.
“The problem with cannabis is there is no quantitative amount, you’re either impaired or you’re not,” Sanborn said, “You’d think by this time we would know all there is to know about cannabis, but we’re still learning about the effects of cannabis on the body and upon the brain.”