(Dec. 12, 2014) With marijuana decriminalization on the books and Gov.-elect Larry Hogan signaling he is ready to declare a state of emergency concerning heroin use, police are relying on trained drug recognition experts to help separate the stoned from the sober.
The drug recognition expert program got its start in Maryland back in 1986 when Maryland State Police 1st Sgt. Thurl Tower was sent to California for training and was the first certified drug recognition expert outside of that state when he returned to set up the program here according to the program’s website. The site claims there are 140 active such experts in Maryland along with 52 instructors. Two of them are in the Ocean City Police Department.
These certified experts are empowered to request blood samples from suspected drugged drivers.
“Judges who are willing to listen to DREs are few and far between,” 1st Sgt. Christopher Davala said, “and there are stringent criteria for use.”
Worcester County has two such judges, according to the DRE website: District Court Judges Daniel Mumford and Gerald Purnell.
A suspect must be first run through the DUI testing regimen and then a drug expert may be requested but the suspect can refuse further testing, Davala said. If the drug expert is not on site at the time a suspect is detained, there may be a significant time element for the trained officer to arrive, Davala said.
Blood tests can only show a person has used certain drugs within a certain timeframe, not that they are currently feeling the effects of those substances, and as such, according to the National Highway Transit Safety Board, are generally seen as impractical.
Detection is a problem for other reasons, according to the NHTSA including: rank-and-file police are not trained to look for drugs other than alcohol, specimen collection requires special equipment, many states limit police to a single test, usually a breath test; many states do not provide for stiffer penalties for combinations of drinking and drugs so drugs are often ignored and crime labs cannot provide test results quickly enough for court cases to proceed in a timely manner.
Lt. Scott Harner is attempting to bring a class session to train drug experts to Ocean City. The class is an intensive nine-day affair that would be costly to send officers to in Baltimore, for example.
“One of our DREs was promoted to sergeant, and his responsibilities are now primarily supervisory. It can be a lengthy process to train new DREs,” Harner said.
Harner is particularly concerned since he is the commander of the traffic safety unit.
“My concern is all illicit or prescription drugs and the existing concern of impaired driving. Drunk and drugged driving is not anything new, and we want to be extra proactive,” he said.
The drug recognition expert training website does not have any classes scheduled in the near future. Harner hopes his class will be approved for spring 2015. Applicants to the program will go through an internal process before meeting with a three-person panel to determine eligibility, Harner said.