Police get special training to identify drivers under the
influence of prescription drugs, as well as illegal ones.
By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun
Few police officers are trained to recognize drugged drivers.
Maryland has 125 drug-recognition experts, and they are spread thin
across the state.
People who drive high on illegal drugs have been a problem for years,
but Maryland authorities are increasingly concerned about another
highway danger: drivers who get behind the wheel while strung out on
In Harford County, drivers impaired by prescription drugs dominate
those arrested for "drugged driving" violations. In Baltimore County,
heroin is the leading drug, but legal drugs -- from anti-depressants
to powerful narcotics such as OxyContin -- are running a close
second, authorities said.
"Within the past four years or so, it's really picked up with those
types of [prescription] drugs," said Officer Frank E. Enko,
who heads the Baltimore County Police Department's team of
22 drug-recognition experts, known as DREs. "It's really taken
A 25-year crusade against drunken driving has sharply cut
alcohol-related traffic fatalities across the country, but
authorities say a similar get-tough campaign is needed to crack down
on drivers impaired by legal and illegal drugs.
"The problem of drugged driving is on a scale similar to drunk
driving, and yet all of the response has been on drunk driving," said
Dr. Robert L. DuPont, a former national drug official. "It's terra
Several factors account for the wide disparity between
drugged-driving and drunken-driving enforcement, law enforcement
officials and other experts said.
For example, Deputy Sheriff Carl N. Brooks with the Harford County
sheriff's office does most of the drug evaluations of impaired
drivers in Harford and Cecil counties, and he has traveled as far as
Westminster in Carroll County upon request.
Testing is limited. Officers can use a quick roadside test to
determine whether someone meets the legal threshold for alcohol
impairment. A more sophisticated test done at police stations, and
admissible in court, typically follows.
A 0.07 percent blood-alcohol concentration level earns a
driving-while-impaired charge, and a 0.08 level or higher results in
a more serious driving-under-the-influence charge.
The technology for simple drug tests was not available until
recently, and such tests are not legal in Maryland.
Thanks to years of public-awareness campaigns and legislative
efforts, laws regarding drunken driving are more explicit.
There is no legal intoxication standard for drugged driving similar
to the 0.08 standard.
"Society recognizes drunk driving. They understand drunk driving and
the per se limit of 0.08 and 0.07," said Sgt. Charles Smith Sr. of
the Maryland State Police, who runs the state's DRE program.
But a growing body of research on drugged driving is catching the
attention of officials, police agencies and public policy experts.
Although illegal drugs such as heroin, marijuana and PCP account for
most of the problem, a rising tide of prescription drug abuse over
the past decade has begun spilling over onto roads and highways,
authorities and experts say.
A recent drugged-driving incident in Howard County was typical. In
November, the operator of a Dodge pickup truck, Carl W. Covert, 42,
of Pasadena, hit the side of a car on Route 100 in Anne Arundel
County about 9 a.m. but kept driving. Howard County police officers
found Covert stopped on Route 100 near Route 103, according to court
No sign of alcohol
Covert failed a field sobriety test and was arrested and taken to
Howard's southern precinct. There, Officer Joseph A. Gallina, who
heads Howard County's team of five DREs, administered an alcohol
test, but none was detected, court documents show.
Then Gallina received Covert's permission to conduct a
drug-recognition test and determined he was under the influence of a
drug, court records said.
A blood test later confirmed the man had Ambien, a popular sleeping
medication, in his system, Gallina said.
The case concluded last month when a Howard District Court judge
gave Covert probation before judgment for one year and a $45 fine.
Covert declined to comment through Glen Burnie attorney William
Turc. "He just wants closure," Turc said.
Speaking generally about the issue, Turc said he is busy handling
"many more" DUI cases involving prescription drugs than illegal
"In most of those cases, it was a prescription drug probably taken
by mistake," Turc said. "I've had clients who are on prescribed drugs
who take more than they should by mistake or they have an adverse
For now, there are no precise statistics that reveal distinctions
between legal vs. illegal drug abuse among drivers.
Nationwide, nearly 11 million people drove under the influence of
illegal drugs -- roughly one-third of the those who drove drunk,
according to a 2002 national survey of drug use.
In Maryland, arrests of drivers impaired by illegal or prescription
drugs jumped 41 percent from 2000 to 2003.
Last year, of the 23,997 arrests statewide for impaired driving, 582
involved drugs or a mix of drugs and alcohol, according to data from
the Maryland State Police.
One recent study of crash victims admitted to Maryland Shock Trauma
Center found significant evidence of drug impairment among
The study, which focused on a three-month period last year and
tested several illegal and some legal drugs, found that 51 percent of
drivers had drugs in their system. And 30 percent tested positive for
"We found that if you're only looking for alcohol, you're going to
miss 50 percent of substance abusers," said J. Michael Walsh,
president of the Walsh Group in Bethesda, a consulting firm that did
On the front line of the drugged-driving problem are the
drug-recognition experts, trained officers or troopers equipped with
a thermometer, blood pressure cuff and pupil-measuring device, who
can render an expert evaluation soon after an impaired-driving arrest
-- and their opinion is admissible as evidence in court.
Prosecutors often hinge their cases on drug tests, but the tests can
miss minuscule amounts of drugs in a person's system, said Smith.
The amount might be enough to impair the driver -- that's where an
evaluation by a DRE is critical.
"When [a drug test] comes back 'no drugs detected,' I
guarantee you, if a DRE determines they're impaired, there's
something there that should not be there," Smith said.
DREs conduct a standardized 12-step examination of a suspected
drugged driver, including an interview, several eye examinations,
coordination tests and a check of vital signs. Based on the results,
the officer forms an educated opinion on whether the driver is
impaired by drugs.
The expert testimony of the DREs can be essential in winning
convictions in drugged-driving cases, police and prosecutors say.
"We haven't lost any cases at trial over the past two years," said
Gallina, the Howard DRE coordinator. "Most of the time, the person
pleads guilty or is found guilty in trial. Very rarely does the
state's attorney lower the charge."
Sometimes in drugged-driving cases, a blood test isn't available to
make a case, but the testimony of a DRE can be enough to win a
Deputy Sheriff Carl Brooks in Harford County said that last year a
man who drove off the road and hit a house was convicted of driving
under the influence of drugs -- even though he did not allow
authorities to administer a blood test.
Brooks performed a drug-recognition evaluation on the driver --
Thomas B. Master, 49, of Bel Air -- after he tested below the legal
level of impairment for alcohol.
"He refused a blood test but was still convicted," Brooks said.
Master received a two-month jail sentence, with one month suspended,
he said. "We had nothing to go on but my observation, and he was
Reached by telephone, Master declined to talk about the case in
detail. "There are a lot of things that can be an invasion of
privacy," he said of the DRE program.
Uneven resources throughout Maryland continue to be a hurdle.
Baltimore County has 22 officers trained as DREs, while Baltimore
City -- where most drugged drivers are impaired by heroin -- has only
Officer Brian Rice, the city's DRE coordinator, said he hopes to add
five more DREs after this year's training session.
"It's a big problem," Rice said. "We have thousands of heroin
addicts who live in the city, and a lot of them have driver's
Some police agencies in Maryland are more aggressive than others in
requesting DREs to evaluate drivers who test below the legal limit
for alcohol but still show signs of impairment, several DREs said.
"That's what bothers me: when they don't call us out," said
Detective Jack Hartzell, who heads Anne Arundel County's team of 12
DREs. And sometimes no DRE is on duty and one needs to be called in
from another county, Hartzell and others said.
This year, the drugged-driving issue caught the attention of
legislators in Annapolis.
They proposed six bills to strengthen penalties for drugged driving.
Only two bills, which were heavily amended, passed the House last
month and await Senate consideration.
House Bill 373 would stiffen certain penalties for repeat offenders
who drive while impaired by a controlled dangerous substance.
House Bill 376 authorizes a court to order an evaluation for a
person who receives probation before judgment, to determine whether
the person would benefit from alcohol or drug treatment.
"I think a lot of people have recognized this is an issue, but most
states haven't done enough about it," said Del. William A. Bronrott,
a Montgomery County Democrat who co-sponsored several of the
"I think the more my colleagues know about the issue and what's at
stake, hopefully, the more successful we will be ... in getting all
the laws in place to address this problem," Bronrott said.