Recreational marijuana was legalized last October in Oregon, but law enforcement agencies are still grappling with how to help officers spot drivers who are under the influence of the drug -- let alone prove that they are. They're also trying to educate the public that getting behind the wheel after smoking or ingesting the drug can be as dangerous as driving drunk.
Marijuana Affects Drivers Differently Than Alcohol
As the state's assistant attorney general points out, too many people believe that marijuana "just makes you a slower driver." However, drivers can be mentally impaired by the drug. This can make them slow to perceive and react to an unexpected event.
Last December, a Portland bicyclist was killed by a driver who admitted to smoking marijuana earlier that day. He still pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges against him, including manslaughter.
Proof Is a Challenge for Officers, Prosecutors
While law enforcement agencies believe that marijuana-related accidents have increased since last fall's legalization, it's difficult to prove. There's currently no field sobriety test that measures the level of marijuana in a person's system, as a Breathalyzer measures blood alcohol content. (Some are being tested around the country.) However, Portland police are learning how to use a tool called a pupilometer, which measures the pupils' response to light and other visual stimuli.
The Oregon State Police are also offering training via a program called Advanced Roadside Impairment Driving Enforcement. ARIDE classes include training on how field sobriety tests can be modified to spot signs of marijuana use. Besides the usual balance and walking tests, this includes looking for eye and leg tremors and noting if drivers need instructions repeated.
Blood tests are of little, if any, help in proving that a person was driving while high because traces of marijuana can remain in a person's system for up to a month. Further, Oregon has no specific legal limit for the amount of pot that can be in a driver's system.
These factors are frustrating for prosecutors. Unless a person admits to having used pot before getting behind the wheel, it's difficult to get a conviction for driving under the influence of intoxicants. However, even if a DUII charge won't stick, if a driver harms or kills someone, other criminal charges can be filed. Oregon criminal defense attorneys protect the rights of those accused of driving under the influence of marijuana.
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