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Drugged driving on the rise – Bangor Daily News

Drugged driving on the rise


Some motorists awaiting trials are still getting behind the wheel

By Diana Bowley
BDN Staff

BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY KATE COLLINS
Piscataquis County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy

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DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — A Levant motorist who was involved in two motor vehicle accidents a month apart this past spring and tested positive for drugs after both accidents is still behind the wheel driving today.And she’s not alone. Police and prosecutors are seeing a surge in people driving while under the influence of drugs, whether the drugs are legal or illegal, and it has them worried. Like the Levant woman, some are driving pending their trials.

“There are more and more people driving under the influence of drugs,” Piscataquis County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy said Tuesday. “The Legislature needs to do something about their licenses prior to them actually going to court, the way we do with people driving while under the influence of alcohol.”

Almy said the Levant motorist tested positive for drugs in the first accident, which involved a telephone pole, and for three different drugs, including opiates, in the second accident, which involved two vehicles.

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While state law enables the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to suspend a driver’s license immediately if a motorist’s blood alcohol level tests 0.08 percent or more, even before the case gets to court, there is no law to do the same for a motorist driving under the impairment of drugs, Almy said.

“You can’t do that with people who are driving under the influence of drugs. There’s no mechanism to get them off the road while their cases are pending,” Almy said. He pointed out that he forwarded a copy of the Levant woman’s case to the secretary of state in an attempt to get the “menace” off the road.

Bob O’Connell, director of legal affairs in the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said Tuesday the process used by Almy is in place to address specific motorists. He said the bureau conducts a review and then decides whether to suspend a motorist’s license. O’Connell explained that the science for testing drugs hasn’t developed enough to allow for the enactment of a statute along the lines of what is in place for alcohol.

But Investigator Dave Wilson of the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department, who is trained in drug recognition, hopes that will soon change. Wilson said he has seen a “huge increase” in motorists driving under the impairment of drugs in the past six months alone and blames it on the availability of more drugs. In addition, he said some motorists have the mindset that an OUI charge applies only to alcohol.

The majority of the cases Wilson has been involved in stem from the abuse of prescription drugs. For example, he said a motorist may have taken more than the prescribed dose of a drug, not followed a warning on the label, or combined the prescription drug with alcohol or narcotics.

Wilson said that when police officers stop an impaired motorist but can’t detect alcohol, they call for a drug recognition specialist to respond. “We can very accurately pinpoint a drug category” from the testing, he said.

Typically, people on narcotics have constricted pupils, high blood pressure and an elevated body temperature. Motorists on depressants have dilated pupils and a lower blood pressure, and those on marijuana will have bloodshot eyes.

‘“Sometimes, just with the eye test alone you can make a preliminary assumption of what type of drug they are on, but of course we don’t just base it on that,” Wilson said.

Wilson said a field sobriety test is conducted and a urine sample taken to confirm the presence of a drug. The worst case for Wilson is people who take drugs and cause an accident. He said that when motorists start combining one or two depressants, it causes sleepiness. “I’ve had people fall asleep constantly during my tests, and I have to keep waking them up,” Wilson said. If they are sitting in a controlled environment and falling asleep, one can only imagine what they are like behind the wheel of a vehicle, he said.

“I’ve seen the narcotics and the depressants and the combination that people will take —it’s just frightening,” Wilson said.

He said methadone — a drug used to manage opiate addiction — and hydrocodone — a narcotic pain medication — play a big role in the increased rate of drugged driving, an observation reiterated by Almy. “A lot of the cases we have are people who say they are on methadone and they are either going to the clinic or are leaving the clinic,” Almy said. “The thing is when they drive, usually there’s a very significant impairment in terms of their driving; it’s not just because they had a taillight out or something like that. Usually their driving is so atrocious that they’re not only driving under the influence but they’re erratic and dangerous.”

Motorists convicted of operating under the influence of drugs face the same sentence as they would for an OUI, Wilson said. That could range from fines of $500 and up and possible jail time depending upon the circumstances.

“I think a lot of these people don’t even realize they are impaired, just like a lot of people who have drunk too much alcohol but don’t think they’re impaired,” Wilson said. “All the education is primarily on drinking and driving [now], but I think the more we see this explosion of drugs, especially prescription medications, the more education you’re going to see on this type of prevention.”

People taking prescription medications should be aware of what the side effects are, Wilson said. “Read the labels” before getting behind the wheel, he urged.

dianabdn@myfairpoint.net

876-4579

http://www.bangordailynews.com/detail/123089.html

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