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Authorities worry about drugged driving after new pot law takes effect

On Behalf of | May 6, 2014 | Blog, Cops, Field Sobriety Tests, Marijuana

Maryland needs more trained police officers to combat problem, prosecutors say

Maryland prosecutors are concerned that the new law eliminating criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana will result in an increase in “drugged driving” that police are ill-equipped to handle.

“It is inevitable that there will be an increase in drugged driving in Maryland,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said. “We’d better be ready.”

Maryland’s decriminalization law, which makes possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil violation, takes effect Oct. 1.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger and other prosecutors wanted state legislators to delay passing the law until such consequences could be better studied in Colorado and Washington, where voters legalized marijuana use in 2012.

Colorado authorities are more aggressively addressing drugged driving, and Maryland officials should take notice, McCarthy and Shellenberger said.

Colorado Department of Transportation officials launched a public education campaign in March called “Drive High, Get a DUI” featuring comical commercials about people who are high on marijuana and have no business driving.

“We have seen an increase in drugged driving,” said John Jackson, first vice president of the Colorado Chiefs of Police Association. The evidence has been largely anecdotal, but his organization is receiving funds from state taxes on marijuana sales to train more officers as drug recognition experts. “We want to get ahead of the curve.”

Colorado wants to expand the number of drug recognition experts from 212 to 300 over the next year, said Glenn Davis, Colorado’s highway safety manager. The costly training process takes nearly two weeks.

The Maryland State Police employs 28 drug recognition experts and there are 122 more across the state’s 26 police departments. A class of 18 state police officers is being trained now, but the state police has not determined if more are needed, a spokesman said.

Montgomery County Chief of Police Thomas Manger said he employs 15 drug recognition experts. “I’m lucky to have two on duty at any given time. That’s going to be woefully inadequate.”

Many decriminalization advocates have characterized such arguments as alarmist. They also have said that eliminating criminal penalties for minor marijuana possession would free up police resources.

Not so, authorities say. Officers who stop drivers suspected of impaired driving will need to wait for a drug recognition expert to arrive if breath tests do not reveal the presence of alcohol.

“It’s not going to free up resources,” said Frederick County State’s Attorney Charles Smith. “We don’t have legislation or the resources to deal with drugged driving.”