Though drunk driving has declined, use of
marijuana, meth and other substances poses
Russ Clark, a
motorcycle officer with the Long Beach police,
says he's arrested "potheads, hard-core
methamphetamine addicts, even nurses and doctors
under the influence of drugs."
his pursuit of law-breaking motorists, the 26-year
veteran of the department has pulled over weaving
vehicles thick with marijuana smoke and drivers so
high "they were moving in slow motion."
"It was like right out
of a Cheech and Chong movie," he says.
He's snared twitching meth addicts driving
erratically and motorists so wasted on muscle
relaxers they could hardly stand.
While incidences of drunk driving have declined
over the years, thanks in part to organizations
such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, driving
under the influence of drugs has increased,
reports Marilyn Huestis at the National Institute
on Drug Abuse in Rockville, Md.
To battle the problem, researchers are scrambling
to develop uniform procedures that would allow
police to easily screen motorists suspected of
being under the influence of drugs.
One procedure involves a saliva test that could be
done quickly in the field with a swab. It would
not require police to take a suspect to a hospital
or to jail for blood or urine samples, Huestis
Australia and some European countries are ahead of
the U.S. in screening efforts. Authorities in
Victoria, Australia, have done saliva testing to
determine marijuana and methamphetamine use and
are planning to add screening for Ecstasy, says
Huestis, a toxicologist and chief of the drug
abuse institute's Chemistry and Drug Metabolism
program. "We have been playing catch-up," she
James Frank of the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration cautions that testing is still in
the early stages. He says testing may be completed
in early 2007.
Huestis says that if the screening is approved in
the U.S. the initial roadside screening would be
the first step to detect drugs. After a positive
result, police would have to take the suspect to a
hospital or to jail for a more detailed blood or
urine confirmation test.
"We know that marijuana is the drug that shows up
most often, since it is the most commonly abused
drug in the U.S.," says Huestis. But the use of
powerful stimulants like methamphetamines and
cocaine raises even bigger concerns, she says.
"We are seeing a tremendous number of accidents
that occur when people are coming down from
stimulants," she says. They are fatigued, and if
they get behind the wheel they can fall asleep. If
they are still high, they may drive recklessly,
In February, a mother of three in Olympia, Wash.,
was sentenced to 17 months in prison for driving
under the influence of methamphetamines after she
caused a crash that paralyzed her 4-year-old son.
Estimates on the number of drug-related accidents
vary because researchers admit it's hard to nail
down which fatalities, accidents or incidents
involve people driving under the influence of
drugs. The problem is that many police departments
don't differentiate between cases involving
alcohol or drugs.
The National Center for Injury Prevention and
Control reports that in 2004 about 1.4 million
drivers were arrested for allegedly being under
the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to
the U.S. Department of Justice.
Researchers at the drug abuse institute, the
highway safety administration and other such
groups are often left with anecdotal information
and insufficient hard data. While a breathalyzer
test at the side of the road can determine a
driver's blood alcohol content, the only way to
determine if someone is under the influence of
drugs is a blood or urine test, which has to be
done at a hospital or jail facility.
As a result, officers who stop a person suspected
of impaired driving test first for alcohol. If the
roadside test is positive, they generally don't
seek a drug test because of the inconvenience,
says Long Beach Police Sgt. David Cannan.
Dr. Federico Vaca, director of UC Irvine's Center
for Trauma and Injury Prevention Research, says
drugs play a role in accidents far too often.
"Emergency room doctors often see young drivers
hurt in accidents that involve alcohol and drugs."
And with a surge in meth use, Vaca says, the
incidents could increase.
"Mixing speed [methamphetamines] with alcohol is a
formula for disaster," Vaca says.