Defining Our New Normal Drugged Driving and Poly-Drugged Driving

by Miriam Norman, Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor

Miriam Norman

I started my career as a young bright-eyed, naïve child; I was 24 when I graduated law school well over a decade ago. In law school, all three years, I interned at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (Houston, TX), and wow did I learn things. I am both proud and amazed that the first time I knowingly saw marijuana was as a prosecutor. Either I was obtuse or sheltered to the point, that through my formative years, I did not ever even see it (nonetheless touch it!) It is much to the amusement of friends and family that I am now an expert on drugs and impaired driving. Drugged driving was not so prevalent when I started my career, though.

When I started my career, we were fully focused on alcohol only DUI. Even as a Rule 9 intern (a law student with attorney oversight) in Texas, I handled several DUIs- all alcohol only. As a young prosecutor, it was rare that we saw DUI-drugs. I do remember seeing my first DUI-drugs case, and lucky for me, a Drug Recognition Evaluation (DRE) was conducted. DREs are the best evidence in a DUI-drugs case, but more on that in another article. Nowadays, almost half of all cases are DUI-drug cases. According to the most recent data from the Washington State Patrol Toxicology Lab, 36 percent of all blood has active THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana) in it, and 41% of all blood has Carboxy-THC (the inactive metabolite that means marijuana was used at some point) was present. That is nearly ½ of all blood.

As it pertains to alcohol, MADD, public policy, and societal norms have worked wonders in establishing that driving under the influence of alcohol is dangerous and wrong. DUI arrests for strictly alcohol are generally down across the country. This is not to say that our job is over! Thirty-eight percent (the majority) of all fatalities on our roadways are caused by an alcohol impaired driver. Our goal is zero deaths and disabling injuries from impaired drivers. Even with just alcohol only, we have a challenge before us.

Despite DUI-drug arrests increasing, Drug Recognition Evaluations have not similarly gone up in number. Unfortunately, evaluations have markedly decreased.

What we are seeing on our roadways is, that since 2008, 62 percent of all fatalities on Washington’s roadways are caused by drugged drivers. 44 percent of the 62 percent are poly-drugged drivers. Poly-drug means more than one impairing substance detected, e.g., the most common combination of poly-drugged driving is alcohol and THC. One quarter of all crashes in Washington have a poly-drugged driver involved. To say that drugged driving and poly-drugged driving is something we need to address is understating the magnitude of the issue.

Many ask what is going on? Truthfully, I do not know. I believe we have gotten better at detecting drug impaired driving. The Drug Evaluation and Classification program (DEC/DRE) was established in the 1970’s. The validation studies confirming the usefulness of the DRE program were conducted in the 80’s and early 90’s. Prior to that, officers may have been seeing odd behavior, but not able to quantify it or express it as impaired driving. We are quite good at detecting alcohol impairment, not so much for other drugs. All three studies did confirm that suspects arrested by the DREs would have gone undetected and arrested without the tools provided by the DRE program. The flip side of that argument is more people are using drugs. That is also accurate.

Drug users have more drugs available to them and will use all the drugs. Where one drug used to be their favorite, with the wide availability and accessibility of alcohol, marijuana, and a multitude of other drugs, they will use whatever they can. Anecdotally we are seeing more cases with a wide array of impairing substances in blood. This creates challenges for our officers to be able to articulate what they are seeing and why they are seeing it. More training is needed to give our officers more tools to tackle impaired driving.

Although this is may look like a bleak picture, the beauty is we have room to grow. Challenges can be overcome. We need all the stakeholders in the fight against impaired driving on board. We need to stop normalizing impaired driving of any sort. We need to talk to our friends and families and express that marijuana is not safe to drive under the influence of, and it is not acceptable either. We need to voice our concern and do our part. As Target Zero Managers (TZMs), you have a unique ability to assist in the fight. You have the ability to arrange drug impaired driving enforcement trainings. Huber and I are happy to come and train. We need your support and ability to get this training into the hands of the officers who need it most. Officers need to be trained on drugged and poly-drugged driving. They need more information on how marijuana affects the human body and what to look for to see if someone is safe to drive or not. As TZMs, we invite you to host us, encourage officers to attend, and facilitate a training with us. We are completely free to you and are happy to come! Please let us know how we can help you in your mission of Target Zero!

Feel free to reach out to me or have any officer reach out to me about any traffic, search warrant, impaired driving, courtroom, testimony, prosecution, investigation question!