Local News

Marijuana DUIs spike after legalization

SPOKANE, Wash. - For Trooper Joe Leibrecht, getting impaired drivers off the road is personal. Before he was with the Washington State Patrol, he was a teacher who saw one too many tragedies.

"I actually had five students that were either killed or directly impacted by impaired drivers," Leibrecht said.

Leibrecht changed careers hoping to make a difference. Now, he watches for people driving high, a reality since recreational marijuana was legalized with the passage of I-502 in 2012.

"You're more in tune to be looking for it nowadays," Leibrecht said.

Much like alcohol impairment, people suspected of driving high are asked to do a field sobriety test. Officers check for eye movements, balance and test the person's concept of time. If officers rule out alcohol and believe drugs are involved, they need blood for evidence. Unlike alcohol, where there's fast results from a Breathalyser, there's no on-site test for marijuana. Instead, officers have to get a search warrant signed by a judge to draw blood, which can take up to several hours.

"If they're impaired we have no issue with taking that driver off the roadway," Leibrecht said.

All liquid specimens taken in the state end up at the WSP's Toxicology Laboratory in Seattle. Specialists test the blood to find if drugs were used, and if so, what kind. For marijuana, they're looking for THC, the active component that causes the effects on a person.

"So we just use the physical and chemical properties of THC, we add different chemicals to separate it out to extract it from the blood and then we're able to use instrumentation to identify that compound," Laboratory Manager Brianna Peterson said.

She said it takes about four hours to test, and adds it isn't an easy task.

"THC is more complex, so it's harder to do the testing and it's a more complex interpretation of the results," Peterson said.

In 2012, 988 tests came back positive for THC statewide. A year later, that number increased to 1,362. Peterson said they're seeing more cases come each year and have to adjust accordingly.

"We have limited resources," Peterson said.

The state numbers for 2014 aren't in yet, however the Spokane County Prosecutor's Office is sure when they do, there will be another increase. The number of cases from the first part of this year was on the verge of surpassing last year's amount. That was even before marijuana hit retail stores, so we could easily see more than double marijuana DUIs from last year.

According to prosecutors, from January to June there had already been 78 marijuana DUI cases in Spokane County. In 2013, there were 89 and in 2012 only 34.

"It use to be, 20 years ago when I first started this there really wasn't any such thing as a marijuana DUI," attorney Steve Graham said.

Attorneys in Spokane said they are seeing a big boom in business. Graham said his office used to take on about five marijuana DUI cases a year, now he's seeing double since the passage of I-502.

While there is an increase, marijuana-related DUIs only make up 4 percent of all DUIs. According to the WSP, alcohol still leads the pack with 83.5 percent and other drug DUIs making up the remaining 12.5 percent.

Although the numbers are different, law enforcement said the effect of alcohol and drugs are the same.

"Their time delayed is slowed and the awareness of their surroundings is slowed," Leibrecht said.

That's why if you ask any officer, it doesn't matter what kind of DUI it is. If they find you under the influence, they want you off the road.

"That's what we're out here to do," Leibrecht said.


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