Training underway for additional Drug Recognition Experts following marijuana legalization

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Latham, N.Y. (NEWS10) With the legalization of marijuana, law enforcement is bracing for a potential increase in impaired drivers. Many agencies already have Drug Recognition Experts on hand and some are in the process of training additional officers so they can keep our roads safe.

While officers can use a breathalyzer to help determine if a driver is intoxicated, most local agencies are not yet equipped with a tool that can detect marijuana, so instead they rely on DREs.

The New York State Police have more than one hundred recognition experts statewide. Troop G Public Information Officer, Kerra Burns, told News10 nine troopers are scheduled to receive training this year. Some trainings are being held this month and then another will take place in September. The training is led by the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee and includes officers from all different agencies, not just State Police. 

Trooper Burns said since 2018, NYSP has doubled the number of Drug Recognition Experts following a spike in drug-related fatal crashes.

For the next twelve to eighteen months they will also be in the process of training all Troopers in the Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement Program. “The ARIDE program was developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and provides law enforcement officers with additional training in identifying the signs of drug and alcohol impairment. It fills the gap between Standard Field Sobriety Testing and the advanced DRE training,” said Trooper Burns.

“Operators are fifty percent more likely to be involved in a crash if they’ve consumed marijuana before driving. Marijuana can stay in your system and impair your ability to drive for up to twenty-four hours,” said Trooper Adam Norton. He’s been a Trooper for eight years and a DRE instructor for two and a half.

“We don’t have X-ray eyes so we can’t tell you what’s in your blood, but we can tell you what drug category is causing your body to do the things that we’re seeing,” said Trooper Norton.

Trooper Norton said they use a twelve point checklist that mainly looks for involuntary functions. They start with a breathalyzer then they interview the arresting officer. “We want to know everything that they saw from the minute that car drew their attention to everything in between,” said Trooper Norton.

“Drugs impair your autonomic nervous system so it’s things that you can’t control. So you can’t practice keeping your blood pressure down, you can’t practice keeping your pulse rate down,” said Trooper Norton.

Trooper Michael Tromblee has been a DRE for eight years and became an instructor with Trooper Norton in 2019.  He said the specific section of the VTL law is section 1192-4, which is strictly for drugs. “It’s impairment to any extent and that’s one of the reasons that we as DREs have a twelve step process, it’s very extensive,” said Trooper Tromblee.

They also do a “dark room” exam where they check for pupil size and use a UV light for signs of ingestion, whether it’s by mouth, nose, arms, hands or feet. “One of the things in the DRE program that we teach is the eyes are the window to the soul,” said Trooper Tromblee. 

“The blood shot eyes, the dilated pupils, the eyelid tremors, the relaxed inhibitions,” said Trooper Norton. 

Trooper Norton said towards the end of the evaluation they will sit down with the operator and have a conversation and give them an overview of what they observed, giving them the opportunity to give the Trooper more information. He said, often times, they do make admissions. 

Lastly, they will call in a paramedic to draw blood for toxicology. Those results typically take about a month to come back, but officers do not need to wait for those in order to charge a driver. They’re so highly trained that their observations are admissible as evidence in court.

Trooper Tromblee said the certification process is intensive. Troopers must first pass a sixteen hour course before they can even be considered for the training. Then they spend at least eighty hours in a classroom followed by a week of practical assessments where they travel to Phoenix, Philadelphia, or Florida and put their skills to the test at jails or other facilities where people volunteer to participate.  “They’ll do their evaluations and then that’s compared to a tox (toxicology report) to make sure that what they’ve trained for for two weeks, and they’ve mastered, that they now can put it into practice,” said Trooper Tromblee.

The officers could also find that the impairment is not drug-related, but instead some sort of medical impairment and will then call an ambulance and seek the appropriate care.

“Our primary responsibility and our goal is to keep everyone safe including that operator,” said Trooper Norton.

“If you’re going to use marijuana, have a plan. There’s Uber, there’s Lyft, there’s taxis. Have a friend who is not using drive you home,” said Trooper Tromblee. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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