As legalized recreational marijuana inches closer to implementation on the retail side of the law, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s (LADA) Office is taking steps to ensure that law enforcement officials are better prepared to identify drivers who may be under the influence of marijuana.
The DA’s office announced the formation of a new unit this week that would be aimed at educating and training law enforcement officers in the county how to better assess intoxication by encouraging more officers to become Drug Recognition Experts (DRE) and also improving lab testing equipment to be able to determine that someone is actually intoxicated versus just having THC in their system.
"With the legalization of marijuana in California, we in law enforcement must be prepared to aggressively investigate and prosecute vehicular deaths and injuries caused by impaired drivers," Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said. "It is still a crime for any person to get behind the wheel while under the influence of drugs - whether legally obtained or not."
Larry Droeger, the head deputy of the unit that will be training the new DUI Training and Prosecution Section, said that there are not nearly enough DREs on the streets and normal officers just aren’t equipped with the knowledge to accurately assess marijuana intoxication.
“With alcohol we’ve probably had a century of scientific investigation into how alcohol affects the human body and the human nervous system effects of alcohol,” Droeger said. “With marijuana, we have much less scientific data to rely on because it’s been illegal most of that time and is still illegal federally, so scientists can’t ethically run experimentation where they’re having people violate the law to do it.”
The office will work with law enforcement personnel to determine if drugs were a factor in serious or fatal traffic collisions and what types of evidence is needed to successfully prosecute those cases.
His unit will work with local agencies to get police officers trained through a course that lasts about three weeks. The unit is being funded in part by a $858,000 grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—the same office that provides law enforcement grants for DUI checkpoints and saturation patrols, most notably during holiday weekends.
However, individual departments will be left to cover the cost of officers being trained during their normal working hours, meaning that other officers will most likely have to work overtime to cover for anyone training to become a DRE.
Droeger said that combined with a DREs assessment and better tools being acquired by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s test lab designed to test for Delta-9, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, there should be less cases that are either challenged or wrongfully filed.
“I think we have a pretty good case at that point,” Droeger said. “It’s going to be a while where it’s as solid as alcohol where all we have to show is it’s a certain level of alcohol in their blood and they’re done, they’ve violated the law.”
The legalization of recreational marijuana during last November’s election has many law enforcement agencies worried of an influx of caseloads centered around marijuana-related DUIs.
The California Highway Patrol recorded 124 deaths and over 6,600 serious injuries linked to DUI crashes in LA County in 2015, however, Droeger said that less than one thousand were drug-related.
Those convicted of driving under the influence will be subject to the same types of fines and jail time associated with alcohol-related DUIs, but unlike alcohol, there are no programs aimed at offenders who are exceptionally intoxicated as there is no current definition of what that is for the substance.