Medical marijuana plants being grown before flowering during a media tour of the Curaleaf medical cannabis cultivation and processing facility in Ravena, N.Y. Credit: Hans Pennink | AP

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As recreational marijuana shops are set to open across Maine in the spring, police departments are worrying about residents driving after using marijuana, and the availability of officers with the specialized training necessary to determine if a driver is impaired.

The police chiefs of the Presque Isle, Ashland, Washburn and Fort Fairfield police departments said they were ready to handle any potential rise in intoxicated driving resulting from recreational shops. Motorists who ingest marijuana and drive will be subject to the same penalties they would experience for drunk driving.

Since it is somewhat new terrain for police departments, and it can be more difficult to enforce when someone drives while under the influence of marijuana compared with the established standards for determining when someone is driving drunk.

Presque Isle Police Chief Laurie Kelly said her officers have arrested individuals for marijuana OUIs “a lot more” since the legalization of marijuana.

Of the 62 OUI arrests Presque Isle police made in 2019, four were marijuana OUI arrests, and another seven were operating while under the influence of narcotic drugs, like methamphetamine or opioids.

Kelly said that her department cooperates with Maine Drug Recognition Experts program to prosecute those caught while under the influence of all drugs, including marijuana, behind the wheel.

Once officers arrest the suspect, a drug recognition officer runs a number of sobriety tests, and may draw blood that authorities can test for the presence of substances.

All departments interviewed utilize officers trained in drug recognition. These officers are available to their own departments and others statewide. This program is used because there is no drug equivalent to a breathalyzer test. Drug recognition officers are subject to lengthy and meticulous training that prepares them to identify when individuals are intoxicated, and on what substances.

According to the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, which oversees the drug recognition program, there are seven drug recognition-certified officers in Aroostook County. Presque Isle Officer Brady Smith is the only officer present in Presque Isle and surrounding communities. Four officers are based in Houlton and two in Caribou.

Rick Desjardins, assistant director at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy where officers are trained in drug recognition, said the training is highly specialized. Trained officers look at physical and mental impairments, such as balance, cognitive abilities and pupil size.

“A lot of these drugs have a very specific impact on a person,” Desjardins said. “Within a very high percentage, the officer can make a determination on the particular drug category they are under the influence of … and also get chemical confirmation.”

Cyr Martin, chief of the Washburn and Ashland Police Departments, said he is waiting to see how state authorities regulate recreational cannabis so that his department can get “guidance” to handle the situation.

“We’re kind of sitting back and waiting to see how the Maine State Police and Maine Criminal Justice Academy handle this policy,” Martin said.

He said that as it currently stands, it is relatively difficult to detect and prosecute individuals for driving while under drug intoxication, at least compared to alcohol.

He said that given the small number of officers trained in drug recognition in Aroostook County, his departments have had issues with wait times.

Fort Fairfield Police Chief Shawn Newell said that since 2017, the first full year in which marijuana was legal in Maine, his department had made 11 OUI arrests. Ten of those arrests were alcohol-related, and one was due to driving on stimulants. Newell said no OUI arrests were marijuana-related.

All three of the chiefs interviewed described the driving while high on marijuana as being just as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Studies analyzing the impacts of driving while high on marijuana point to it being about twice as dangerous as driving while sober, citing decreased response times and alertness for drivers who ingest THC.

A 2014 study using federal crash data found that driving while high on marijuana made you nearly twice (1.83 times) more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.

That same study found that having any level of alcohol in your system made you about 14 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash, while a blood-alcohol content level of more than 0.08 made you 62 times more likely. Another study, also from 2014, found that marijuana use doubles car crash risk.