DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — When a law enforcement officer stops a vehicle that’s operating erratically, it’s relatively simple to assess whether the driver has been drinking alcohol. In addition to the smell, there are the classic symptoms of slurred speech, glassy eyes and lack of coordination.
But in the past few years, there has been a noticeable increase in another type of OUI: drugged driving.
Dave Wilson, an investigator with the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department, is the only certified drug recognition expert in the county, and he’s been busier than usual this year.
“I’ve been called more times since January than I have for the past few years. It’s very troubling,” Wilson said. “Prescription drugs are not meant to be used recreationally.”
Medical marijuana has been added to the equation, which Wilson said presents “new challenges. After you inhale pot, it goes into your system in three to nine seconds. It’s not safe to drive for 24 hours after smoking even one joint. But users don’t seem to grasp that.”
Kyle Wilson, a patrol deputy, said he has arrested four people for drug-impaired driving so far this year, “which is more than I’ve had since I’ve been on patrol. People seem to think that if a doctor prescribes medication for you, it’s alright to drive after taking it. They don’t even look at the warning labels on the bottle.”
Lt. Alan Grinnell is the drug recognition expert for the Dexter Police Department and said that he has also seen an increase in drug-related OUI arrests.
“I think our ability to recognize the symptoms is also a factor,” said Grinnell. “But one thing that’s troubling is that impaired drivers are using multiple drugs, not just one. When we do a toxicology screening, typically there is more than one category involved.”
Greenville Police Chief Jeff Pomerleau said that his department hasn’t had any drug-related OUI arrests so far this year, “but we’re seeing an uptick in alcohol OUIs. Driver impairment in general is always a concern for us.”
Patrol officers in many Maine departments, including the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office, have taken a two-day course named ARIDE: Advanced Roadside Impaired Drive Education.
“It’s designed to help officers evaluate a driver’s condition quickly,” Dave Wilson said.
A driver suspected of drug-impaired driving will be asked to perform field sobriety tests similar to those of an alcohol-related stop. If the subject fails, then the drug recognition expert officer checks their blood pressure, temperature and pulse and requests a urine sample.
“Then we can make a determination of the category of drugs they’re taking,” Wilson said.
Even that can be a challenge at times because compounds often change in “homemade” drugs. Spice has evolved into K-2, a more powerful compound. Bath salts are still around, Wilson said, “but it just doesn’t get publicized very much.”
The department is also watching out for a Russian-originated drug called krokodil.
It’s a homemade version of the painkiller desomorphine, but it’s laced with corrosive chemicals and can cause gangrene, Wilson said.
“If you do a Google search on krokodil, be prepared for some gross pictures,” he added.
Because of requests from some local businesses and community leaders, the sheriff’s department will host a Drug Recognition Forum 6-8 p.m. Monday, April 21, at Foxcroft Academy.
“Business owners and educators want to be able to recognize symptoms if a person come to work or school acting strangely,” Wilson said. “Certainly, we don’t have all the answers. But we really need to address the problem.”