Legal pot is coming, and suburban police want more drug recognition experts
Working the midnight shift, Algonquin police officer Amanda Olsta stopped drivers who seemed impaired but whose alcohol breath tests were within the legal limit. Was their impairment due to drugs? Medication? Or even a medical condition?
Wanting to better understand what she was seeing, Olsta decided about two years ago to become a certified drug recognition expert, joining an elite rank of 159 officers, or 0.4% of the 40,000 or so law enforcement officers in Illinois. Now, Olsta said, she can assess if someone is driving under the influence of drugs.
"It was a niche I wanted to get into," she said. "I am glad I did it."
With the legalization of recreational marijuana starting Jan. 1 in Illinois, suburban police departments say they want more trained drug recognition experts like Olsta to help identify people driving under the influence of drugs and keep them off the roads.
Law enforcement officials, who warn of a potential increase in pot-related crashes, say being able to determine impairment is a key concern about legalization because unlike alcohol, there is no standardized roadside test police can use for marijuana and other drugs. Saliva testing might be a future option with ongoing pilot programs in Carol Stream and other parts of the country.
But with less than four months before the law begins, few departments have drug recognition experts, or DREs. There's only one DRE training each year in Illinois -- the next is in April in Decatur -- open to only about 30 officers, although there is talk of adding more.
Also, the training and ongoing recertification requires a big commitment from officers, said Lake in the Hills Sgt. Adam Carson, a drug recognition expert and senior instructor for the program. "Not everyone is going to want to do what we do," he said.
Meanwhile, critics argue the drug recognition expert program has never been independently validated.
All officers learn standardized field sobriety testing at the police academy. On the job, some go through a 16-hour training for advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement, with about 1,850 such trained officers across the state, said Thomas Turek, state coordinator for the drug recognition expert program.
The next level is to become a drug recognition expert.
The program is intense: It requires 72 hours in the classroom and at least 12 supervised evaluations, as well as a final exam, plus ongoing training and recertification every two years.
Arresting officers can call a DRE if they suspect drug use. The experts do an evaluation, typically about 40 minutes and always at the police station, of the people arrested, who must give consent. About 30% refuse, Carson said.
They assess if the person is impaired; whether impairment is due to drugs, injury or a medical condition; and if it's drugs, which of seven drug categories, Carson said.
The evaluation consists of a strict 12-step process, including interviewing the person and the arresting officer; examining coordination, speech and eye movement; balance tests; estimating pupil size under three types of lighting; examining muscle tone; and taking blood pressure, temperature and pulse, the latter at least three times to ensure the results were not due to nerves, Carson said.
The law says drivers are under the influence if they have 5 nanograms of THC, the active component of marijuana, in one milliliter of their blood, or 10 nanograms in other bodily fluids, such as saliva or urine. Officers can request blood and urine tests, but people can refuse and face suspension of their driver's license.
Sometimes drug recognition experts don't observe impairment, but the arrest remains valid based on the initial officer observations, Carson said. Some drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine, go through the system at a faster pace than other drugs, so by the time the evaluation is done, their effect might not be obvious, he said.
"Or it could be the way the drug was administrated, like if you snort it or inhale it or have a transdermal patch or you inject it," Carson said. "There's a lot of different ways to get drugs in your system."
Drug recognition experts stay up-to-date with modern drugs, including marijuana strains that are much more potent than in the 1960s and 1970s, Carson said. There are also multiple drug edibles, oils and inhalants.
Some suburban police departments have several DREs -- Carol Stream has six, the most in the state among local police -- while others, such as Arlington Heights, have none.
"Drug-impaired drivers are just, if not more, dangerous than alcohol-impaired drivers," Carol Stream Sgt. Brian Cluever said. "When officers are not trained, these drivers can be let go by officers who don't have the proper training."
Arlington Heights police Cmdr. Commander Greg Zanicki said the department hopes to have a few trained next year. Officers will have to volunteer because the program is so intensive, he said.
Elgin police has four DREs and plans to have more trained, Lt. Jeff Adam said.
"We are following national trends where we are seeing more drug DUIs," he said. "Five or six years ago we didn't even track data on it. As we started tracking, the numbers are up every year. The more training officers get, the better equipped they are with new changing trends."
Turek said there's been a surge in calls from police departments across the suburbs and the state about DRE training.
The training is offered by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board and funded by a $250,000 to $300,000 yearly grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration through the Illinois Department of Transportation, said Patrick Hahn, of state training and standards board. The grant also pays for Turek's salary and other types of DUI classes.
"If some of these other classes come under budget, we might be able to hold two DRE classes next year," Hahn said.
The cost of DRE classes varies by location. It was about $45,000 in Carol Stream this spring and will cost about $27,000 in Decatur next year, Hahn said. Police departments pay only for officers' room and board. The departments must be willing to share their certified experts with other agencies, as they do for police dog units.
The recreational marijuana bill includes no specific funding for the state training and standards board. Local governments will get a share of state revenues from recreational marijuana to support law enforcement -- an estimated $3.1 million for fiscal year 2020, said state Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the bill.
"It was law enforcement that suggested having the dollars be distributed via the local government distributive fund formula rather than through the training and standards board to ensure that law enforcement throughout the state receives support," Steans said.
State police is getting nearly $4.9 million from marijuana tax revenues to cover administrative and implementation costs after cannabis legalization, Steans said.
State police, which have 21 drug recognition experts out of 1,750 troopers including academy cadets, might offer DRE courses, but nothing's scheduled yet, Sgt. Jacqueline Cepeda said.
Criticism vs. benefits
The DRE program has critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which filed a lawsuit against a Georgia police department on behalf of individuals arrested by the same DRE officer.
Defense lawyers routinely challenge the drug recognition examinations and judges have at times prohibited the officers from testifying, said Sean J. Young, legal director for the ACLU of Georgia.
"The basis for this so-called DRE has never been independently validated," he said. Young also objected to officers conducting such evaluations. "This is not your standard walk-and-turn. These are eye examinations that many doctors are not even trained or qualified to do," he said.
The drug recognition expert program was started in the 1970s by the Los Angeles Police Department, which collaborated in the 1980s with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop an evaluation and classification program aimed at drivers impaired by drugs other than alcohol. The NHTSA sponsored two validation studies in the 1980s, one at Johns Hopkins University, and funded a third in the 1990s through the Arizona Department of Transportation.
However, a 2013 study in the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine found that the three studies do not validate current drug influence evaluation, or the combination of the DRE officer's assessment and toxicology testing.
Turek said trained drug recognition experts are perfectly capable of performing protocol evaluations and have been effective time and time again. "They follow medical guidelines," he said. "All our charts come from somewhere. We didn't just make that up."
The experts also have been credited with saving lives by spotting signs of medical conditions, he said.
There's great value in having more DREs because legalized cannabis is expected to result in more drug-impaired drivers, Turek said. According to 2018 research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute, crashes increased by up to 6% in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington compared with neighboring states that didn't legalize cannabis.
And as much as officers want to catch drug-impaired drivers, it's not easy without expert training, Olsta said.
"We are seeing the police departments finally recognize the value of the DRE program and understand it more," she said.