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Patrol officers locally and across the state will be on high alert for impaired motorists as recreational marijuana becomes legal for those 21 and older on New Year's Day.

While there is not yet a threshold test to measure marijuana intoxication, or even a vehicle or penal code section in state law to identify when someone high on marijuana is over the limit, motorists who can't pass a roadside intoxication test will be arrested.

“It doesn’t matter that marijuana has been decriminalized and now legalized — our job remains the same at the end of the day — to keep roadways safe from intoxicated drivers, whether they’re under the influence of marijuana, prescription drugs or alcohol,” said Jaime Coffee, California Highway Patrol headquarters spokesperson. “We’ll be treating DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) arrests the same way we’ve been treating drunk-driving arrests.

"If you’re impaired, you’re impaired; it doesn’t matter whether what you consumed before driving was legal or not.”

Officers will continue to conduct blood tests and field sobriety tests for people who got pulled over for moving violations if they detect motor impairment, Coffee said.

Drug impairment on the rise

According to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the percentage of drivers in fatal crashes who had an impairing drug other than alcohol in their system increased from 26.2 percent to 42.6 percent between 2005 and 2015.

In 2012, a roadside survey in California showed more drivers tested positive for drugs that may impair driving (14 percent) than did for alcohol (7.3 percent.) Of the drugs that were identified, cannabis was the most prevalent, at 7.4 percent, slightly more than alcohol, said Rhonda Craft, director of the Office of Traffic Safety.

“It’s taken more than 35 years to convince the vast majority of the public that driving under the influence of alcohol is dangerous, illegal and socially unacceptable,” Craft said. “With more dying on our roadways every day, we can’t afford to take that long when it comes to driving under the influence of prescription drugs, marijuana, illicit drugs and even some over-the-counter medications.”

The message “DUI doesn’t just mean booze” has taken on increased importance as recreational cannabis becomes legal in California, Coffee said.

Planning for legalization

“When Prop. 64 passed in 2016, our offices statewide stepped up efforts to determine and detect drug and alcohol impairment,” Coffee said. "We’ve mandated a specialized training program called ARIDE, which stands for Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement, that helps officers be more comfortable when looking out for not just alcohol but drug impairment in drivers as well.”

About 97 percent of all CHP personnel have completed the ARIDE course, said Coffee, in addition to local law enforcement agencies in every county and city throughout California.

“Whether it’s medicinal or legalized cannabis, the primary concern has always been the safety of the motoring public,” said Chief Brent Newman, of the CHP Valley Division. “We’ll be sending more DRE (drug recognition evaluator) officers out to the field and continue increasing detection training efforts for our officers and local law enforcement agencies throughout the state.”

Pot vs. alcohol

Toxicologists at a crime lab test blood samples collected and submitted by law enforcement following a DUI arrest, Coffee said. They measure the amount of nanograms per milliliter of THC in the blood.

California does not have a "legal limit" for drugs like it does for alcohol, Coffee said. While alcohol has a legal blood alcohol content of 0.08, officials rely on field sobriety tests to determine drug-induced impairment.

“Generally, an impaired driving investigation relies on an officer’s observations of driving behaviors and symptoms of intoxication, performance on field sobriety tests and a confirmatory chemical test,” Coffee said. Additionally, if an officer suspects a driver is under the influence of drugs, a drug recognition evaluator — an officer with specialized training in identifying drug-impaired drivers — may be called in.

Ongoing training

The ARIDE program was developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with input from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Technical Advisory Panel and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police to address the gap in training between Standardized Field Sobriety Testing and the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program.

The program is a 16-hour classroom course, which reviews field sobriety testing, the seven categories of drugs, signs and symptoms of impairment, physiology of drugs, courtroom testimony, report writing and drug combinations, according to the CHP.

The additional training is intended to provide officers with general knowledge about drug impairment and promote the use of drug recognition officers, Coffee said. The course allows officers to observe, identify and articulate signs of drug or alcohol impairment, or a combination of both.

“More and more personnel statewide have been receiving training and we’ve been stepping up efforts as Jan. 1 is right around the corner,” Coffee said. “Changes in the law regarding adult use cannabis may encourage those who weren’t thinking of driving under the influence to do this, and they may not be aware of how much it’ll affect not just themselves but others."

A different beast

CHP Officer Dave Reed, who works for the Coastal Division and trained the majority of officers in local jurisdictions through ARIDE, said the strength and complexity of marijuana has increased over the years as farming and agricultural technology has been introduced to the industry.

“Marijuana has become a different beast the last few decades — the level of cannabinoids that affect the psychoactive parts of your brain are so much higher than they were 15 to 20 years ago … it’s definitely had a stronger impact on users," he said.

“If you went to any cannabis club, you’d see so many different strains, variations and all kinds of concentrated stuff that has high levels or maybe even low levels of THC or more cannabinoids,” Reed said.

Training is important, he said, because an officer must be able to identify when someone is impaired, regardless of their physical level of intoxication. ARIDE helps officers identify and detect substance impairment, then add specific details and symptoms in police reports to substantiate why the driver may be under the influence.

“For DUI (alcohol) in the state, you can be arrested if you’re impaired, even if you’re under the legal limit of intoxication according to the vehicle code,” Reed said. “To make the same correlation, there’s no set milligrams of detectable cannabis, or metabolites in someone’s system at this point that the state has accepted.

"So the CHP is tasked with making recommendations to the law, but for a road officer who pulls someone over for driving under the influence of drugs including marijuana, they’ll employ the same field sobriety tests much like for alcohol.”

Standardized field sobriety tests include the horizontal gaze test, the walk-and-turn test and one-leg stand instruction test.

If someone is pulled over for erratic driving and is evaluated for drugs, a CHP officer can conduct those sobriety tests and if they show impairment in any way, the officer must articulate in the report that the person was impaired outside of those field sobriety tests, Reed said.

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“While these tests aren’t validated field sobriety tests to measure impairment from drugs, they’re still great for assessing depth perception and time and any other element necessary to drive safely and multitask,” said Reed.

Reed said that he hopes there will soon be a set level that can be universally accepted when measuring marijuana intoxication and impairment.

“Even though the public has used marijuana for a long time, we haven’t been able to have two experts come in unequivocally and say without a doubt that an X amount of marijuana in someone’s system equals impairment, but hopefully that can change with more experience,” he said.

Local training on track

Officer Joel Asmussen of the Buellton CHP, and Officer Dave Medina of the Santa Maria CHP offices said everyone in their respective departments has attended the ARIDE course and will be on the lookout for impaired drivers, especially those who may be under the influence of marijuana after Jan. 1.

“It was my first time attending and there were lots of good information — it was definitely beneficial for all of us here in Buellton,” Asmussen said. “Our jobs haven’t changed — we make sure the roads are safe for everyone and we work to get impaired drivers off the road.”

Medina pointed out that the law still prohibits users from having an open container of pot, or any pot exposed in their vehicle, even with the legal right to possess it. As well, drivers cannot ingest marijuana while driving.

“We all got trained on the symptoms of impaired drivers under the influence of marijuana — from the smells, side effects, etc. and we’ve been getting updated regularly as Prop. 64 passed last year,” Medina said. “Now that marijuana is easily accessible, we just have to be alert, be aware of the trends out there and be vigilant.”

Officials have also been educated on how much marijuana a motorist can legally have or transport while traveling in the state.

“I can make a traffic stop and if I smell marijuana, I can ask for ID or some proof of legal possession,” Asmussen said. “If they have recreational cannabis and they’re 21 and older, I can let them go, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean they can have 36 pounds of it in their car or something.”

Sgt. Paul Flores of the Santa Maria Police Department, whose personnel, including the Traffic Bureau, took part in the ARIDE training earlier this year, said that day-to-day impairment detection and safety enforcement around the city won't change for officers after Jan. 1.

“If someone is not driving safely and they’re being pulled over and we find out they’re not functional, they will be arrested obviously,” Flores said. “Now that it’s (pot) being legalized, we hope that some federal agencies will continue to do more work on what the legal thresholds may be for presumptive impairment, like drunk-driving.”

How Santa Maria police conduct DUI investigations hasn’t changed under state law, added Flores, but “if the federal agencies come up with a threshold for cannabis, that might change things in the future for both the public and law enforcement officers."

He continued: "While the presence of marijuana in your system doesn’t necessarily mean you’re impaired, just like if you were to go have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner and you drive, impaired driving is still illegal no matter what the new legal marijuana law is.”

Future of motor safety

"Jan. 1, just a few days from now, marks the legal sales to adults," said Craft, with the Office of Traffic Safety. "As it’s been in Colorado and Washington, we fully expect to see an increase in crashes due to marijuana intoxication. New users won’t be ready for the increase of THC concentrations, or be ready for edibles that may hit them hard later. If you fail a roadside test, you will be arrested for DUI.”

Craft said that a new safety campaign is starting statewide: "For those who consume marijuana, no matter who you are, what you call it, how you consume it, you should never drive high.”

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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