MERIDIEN – With the recreational sale of marijuana now legalized, police find themselves coping with a reconfigured landscape of drug enforcement.
Officers who have largely opposed allowing the sale of cannabis have spent the past several years preparing for Connecticut’s marijuana legal status and are now ready to adapt protocol to fit the state’s new marijuana laws.
Southington Police Chief Constable John Daly said, “We noticed that it was… legalization coming, so we did extra training for our officers about what was legal, and what was not”.
However, enforcing what is legal or illegal—particularly with regard to DUI arrests—can be challenging for officers. There is little technology to determine if an individual is indeed high, and state law currently does not set a limit on the amount of THC a motorist may have in their bloodstream while driving.
As a result, Chief Constable of Cheshire Police Neil Drive said officers would need to rely on testing methods such as urine samples to make arrests. A possible consequence of relying on these measures — as police have done for decades — could be unjustified DUI charges, Dryfe said, as current measures of testing can detect marijuana in the bloodstream several days after it is consumed.
“Marijuana stays in people’s bloodstreams for much longer than alcohol,” Driff said. “The fact that someone’s urine sample tests positive does not necessarily mean that the person was smoking marijuana or using marijuana in the time leading up to the immediate test.”
Dryfe’s concerns carry significant weight when measured against data from states like Colorado that saw measurable increases in THC-related DUI arrests after legalizing marijuana sales, according to Colorado Department of Criminal Justice.
Daly also said he’s concerned that easy access to cannabis could lead to a rise in DUI arrests and car accidents involving a disabled motorist. Daly said he’s not worried about the prospect of adults choosing to use marijuana, but he’s troubled by statistics from peer states that suggest growth in high driving is on the horizon.
“We are concerned about accidents associated with people with disabilities driving,” Daley said. “I won’t judge people whether they choose to do this [consume marijuana]. I just hope they do it responsibly, and not drive behind it.”
In order to reduce the potential for false DUI charges, the state legislature has mandated police departments to increase the number of drug identification experts available through traffic. Public Law 21-1 in 2021.
Drug recognition experts, or DREs, are officers who receive specific training in determining whether or not an individual is under the influence of drugs, Daley said.
Although having these experts on hand is essential to handing over the proper DUI fee, getting a DRE is a lengthy and expensive process that Dryfe said entails extensive training and a cross-country trip to Arizona.
Wallingford Police Sergeant Stephen Jack said Public Law 21-1, while a valuable measure for both police accountability and DUI enforcement, may put financial strains on smaller departments.
“It’s going to take law enforcement agencies across the state and send more people to this training,” Jack said. It’s a pretty rigorous program from what I hear, and it’s also expensive. So, this is something that law enforcement and all agencies across the state have had to deal with.
However, the expected jump in impaired driving and the number of approved DREs will likely not be accompanied by an expanded police presence on Connecticut’s highways and back roads.
Daley, Dreff, and Jack all indicated that their departments would not increase the number of officers on the road in their cities, with Jack attributing a plateau in highway patrol to the ongoing staffing shortages that were noted statewide.
“Just because marijuana is legal doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be able to increase patrols,” Jack said. “We are still dealing with staffing issues across the state.”
Although Daly, Dryfe, and Jaques remain skeptical of the touted benefits of legalizing marijuana, they said they accept the new state laws and are now focused on preventing motorists from inhaling or ingesting THC before operating a vehicle.
Jack drew parallels between cannabis and alcohol use and urged marijuana users to choose designated drivers before taking THC.
“I just make it clear that with marijuana being legal, it’s important for citizens to know that just like alcohol, they have to make sure they’re using it in a safe way,” Jack said.[If] They decide they’re going to drive somewhere and they smoke a decent amount of marijuana, maybe they should have someone more sedate to get behind the wheel.”