PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Less than 3 percent of Rhode Island's police force is trained to detect when a driver is impaired by marijuana.
And with the drug now legal across the border in Massachusetts, and legalization up for debate on Smith Hill and in Connecticut, local prosecutors face an issue seen in other states.
There are no court-trusted chemical tests for detecting marijuana in someone's system, nor is there a determined level for how much pot is enough to cause impaired driving.
The fact the drug stays in the body for up to a month makes even a blood test ineffective in court, according to attorney Bob Humphrey, who specializes in defending DUIs.
"It will be difficult for the prosecution to prove if they smoked marijuana immediately before they stopped - or did they smoke it 29 days ago?" Humphrey said.
Then again, since Rhode Island State Police statistics show 64% of drivers stopped for suspicion of DUI refuse the breathalyzer, building a case on the physical signs of pot impairment is vital.
The standard for detecting marijuana and several other drugs besides alcohol involves officers being trained as Drug Recognition Experts, or DREs.
In the entire state - with about 3,000 police officers - there are only 68 DREs.
State Police Corporal John Gadrow is one of them, but he also points out all officers are trained to recognize erratic driving, no matter what drug is involved, and some of the signs pot is involved are obvious, such as the driver smelling like they smoked.
"You'll see green stains on their tongue, possible green, plant-like material in their teeth," Gadrow said. "Their eyes might be dilated. There will be body tremors."
From roadside suspicion, someone suspected of driving high would be taken in and a DRE would be called to conduct further physical testing, according to Gadrow.
Gadrow said there are 12 indicators a DRE is trained to test for, including pupil dilation and blood pressure and pulse indicators.
State police currently have 19 DREs, prompting the department to put those officers on call.
"We can always use more resources," Gadrow added. "That evidence is helpful to the case but we still have to paint the entire picture."
Gadrow said the current crop of recruits at the academy is being trained to recognize pot impairment, with the expertise being a notch between DRE training and drunk-driving recognition.
Humphrey believes that even with the state probably ramping up training and the eventual acceptance of a marijuana chemical test and legal limit, it will take many trials to approach where the legal system is with drunken driving for pot.
"Will the test they use to determine someone's intoxication because of marijuana stand up in court?" Humphrey asked. "That will take years to decide."
When it comes to legalization in Rhode Island, most believe it is a matter of when not if, and the debate is expected to heat up late next month or in June as the annual Assembly session comes to close.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello remains "neutral" on legalization, but also said he's not "certain that our regulatory system is ready to handle legalization this year."
The Cranston Democrat did point out that the state "would need to find an additional $8 million in the budget if we don’t move forward with legalization this year.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo's pot point person, Norman Birenbaum, remains optimistic for legalization this year, saying it's "absolutely" possible.
Birenbaum, who is the Department of Business Regulation's Medical Marijuana Policy and Economic Analyst, emphasizes that with the drug legal in Massachusetts and legalization inching forward in Connecticut, Rhode Island is already impacted with potential roadway and societal issues, without the revenue.
"The responsible thing would be to do it this year and put in place these resources for public health and public safety and law enforcement so they can have the training for enforcement, for prevention," Birenbaum.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio is more lukewarm and even chilly on legalization, expressing concerns about the state's workforce, enforcement of edible products and the "impact on children."
"I will look to the experience in Massachusetts as legalization is implemented there, and proceed very cautiously as we continue to have this important public discussion,” Ruggerio said.
Legalizing pot cleared a hurdle in Connecticut a week ago, when the legislature's Judiciary Committee advanced a bill to the full House and Senate. A vote is expected toward the end of the session in June.
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