Drug recognition experts may be prone to their own biases

This article looks at why drug recognition experts are not a reliable way of catching “stoned” drivers.

While Iowa is not one of the states that has made recreational or medical marijuana legal, its neighbors, Minnesota and Illinois, both permit medical marijuana usage. That means many drivers could find themselves pulled over on Iowa's highways with marijuana in their systems. As such, drugged driving from marijuana is a pressing issue in the state. However, while enforcing drug DUI laws may sound straightforward, the truth is it is anything but.

Why marijuana DUI laws don't make sense

Many states that have legalized marijuana have decided to tackle the problem of drug DUIs similarly to how they tackle alcohol DUI. They have often set a chemical threshold of between 2 and 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood as the benchmark for determining when an individual is too impaired by marijuana to drive. THC is a psychoactive chemical compound in marijuana that causes people to feel "stoned" or "high".

However, this threshold is not based on any reliable science for determining impairment. Whereas a person who drives with a blood-alcohol concentration level above 0.08 can be assumed to be impaired, the same cannot be said for somebody driving with more than 5 nanograms of THC in their system. Habitual marijuana users, for example, often develop a resistance to the drug, meaning they can have a high THC level but not suffer any impairment. A novice user, meanwhile, can have a low THC level and be highly impaired.

Are drug recognition experts the answer?

Faced with the fact that THC levels are not a reliable measure of impairment, many law enforcement agencies are now relying on so-called drug recognition experts to catch stoned drivers. These specially trained police officers are taught unique skills to recognize the signs of marijuana-linked impairment in drivers.

However, drug recognition experts may not be as reliable as they are often portrayed as. A number of civil rights groups, most notably the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have pointed out that drug recognition experts are making a highly subjective judgment when they decide that a person seems too impaired by marijuana to drive. Indeed, their status as "experts" may reinforce a belief in themselves as having a special ability to detect stoned drivers. The ACLU has even filed a lawsuit against one police department in Georgia alleging that one of its drug recognition experts arrested three men for driving while high. Subsequent testing showed that the men in fact had not consumed marijuana. The ACLU alleges that the drug recognition expert arrested the men more on the basis of racial prejudice than on her supposed "expertise".

Help after an arrest

Anybody who has been arrested and may be facing criminal charges needs to talk to a criminal defense attorney right away. Every charge is serious and needs to be treated as such. An experienced attorney can help clients uphold their rights and advocate for their best interests.