Vermont’s law enforcement agencies are adding nine new "drug recognition experts," or DREs, as the state sees an increase in the number of drug-impaired driving incidents and crashes.
When lawmakers were debating Vermont’s new cannabis legalization law, highway safety was one of the biggest sticking points. That’s because there’s no accurate way of checking if a driver is under the influence of cannabis.
Police rely on drug recognition experts to determine if a driver is impaired, after they’ve been stopped on the road. The drug recognition expert training is a national program, and Vermont’s been using DREs on the road since 2005.
Vermont State Police Lt. John Flannigan said a recent national report found an increase in the number of traffic-related fatalities that include drivers with some kind of illegal drugs in their systems.
“Obviously there are some concerns, and we don’t know yet whether we’ll see an increase in cannabis-related impaired drivers or cannabis-related crashes,” Flannigan said. “And we want to make sure that we have the resources available to law enforcement to be able to screen and evaluate these operators.”
Once the nine new DREs have completed their training, Vermont will have a total of 59 DREs across the state. They’re members of the Vermont State Police and of local municipal agencies.
After a police officer stops a vehicle, if there’s any suspicion that the driver is impaired with something other than alcohol, that's when a DRE is called in.
Flannigan said because there’s no roadside breath or saliva test, the DRE is trained to evaluate the driver.
“You know, how is that person is speaking? ... Can they speak clearly? What do their eyes look like? Are their eyes bloodshot? Are they dilated, their pupils? Are they constricted?” Flannigan said. “So, you know, those are all things that are put together because we don’t have a specific test of a level. So you’re putting together all those pieces during the evaluation to show that that person is impaired.”
The DRE evaluation usually happens at a police station or a hospital. And if a DRE thinks a driver is impaired, a search warrant can be requested and a blood test ordered.
ACLU of Vermont strongly supported the new cannabis law, but staff attorney Lia Ernst said the gray areas do raise some questions about how an officer can determine if someone is unable to drive.
“There is no scientifically justifiable threshold above which you’re impaired, legally impaired, at — not with respect to THC,” said Ernst. “Unlike with alcohol, where there’s years of research and studies showing that impairment increases, you know, at .08 is significant. We just don’t have that with marijuana.”
Ernst said relying on the observations of police officers can create some civil rights issues that her office will be paying attention to.
“We all share a strong interest in making sure impaired drivers aren’t on the roads, and giving law enforcement the tools they need to keep the roads safe,” she said. “Where we get concerned is when those tools aren’t accurate or reliable and evidence-based.”
According to a Vermont State Police spokersperson, in 2017 Vermont DREs made 263 evaluations, which was a 13 percent increase over the previous year; cannabis was the most detected drug, accounting for 30 percent of all drug categories.
Disclosure: American Civil Liberties Union is a VPR underwriter.