Alcohol not only drug impairing motorists – Medicines, meth, pot and more keep traffic officers too busy — (The Spokesman-Review)

SSRI Ed note: Spokane sheriff's deputy talks about impaired driving caused by prescription drugs.

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The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)

December 3, 2002

Author: Kevin Blocker Staff writer

Dave Thornburg has often looked up the noses of drivers and discovered their septums were gone because of drug use.

The sheriff’s deputy has pulled over drivers who had blood-alcohol levels below the legal limit of .08 percent, but who could barely stand up when they were asked to take sobriety tests.

And he’s looked into the eyes of drivers whose pupils were so dilated he couldn’t tell what color they were.

He is one of a half-dozen law officers in Spokane County who determine what drugs are in the bodies of drivers displaying symptoms of being under the influence of drugs other than alcohol.

Warnings about drinking and driving are stern during the holiday season. This year, that message has been expanded to include the dangers of driving drugged.

“These people need to know that they will be charged with driving under the influence the same way they would if they were under the influence of alcohol,” Thornburg said.

Unlike a breath test that gives law officers an immediate indication of how much alcohol is in someone’s bloodstream, drug experts spend more time analyzing drivers’ senses at crash sites and police stations.

Last year, drug recognition experts like Thornburg conducted more than 600 drug evaluations in Spokane County on drivers suspected of being under the influence of illegal or prescription drugs.

“Anecdotally, I can say that we’re seeing twice as many drug-involved DUIs due to prescription medication abuse and other recreational drugs,” said Spokane police Cpl. Tom Sahlberg of the department’s traffic unit.

The number is still small compared to those who drive under the influence of alcohol, law officers say. But drugged drivers pose an equal threat to public safety.

In Idaho, law officials last week announced they will conduct patrols during the holidays to crack down on drivers who are impaired by illegal drugs.

Idaho was named a demonstration state for the campaign by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in part because of Idaho’s strong DUI laws and commitment to weekly high-visibility law enforcement patrols, traffic safety administration officials said.

In 2001, 10 percent of all fatal and injury collisions in Idaho involved someone driving under the influence of drugs other than alcohol, according to the Idaho State Police.

“It’s time to address impaired (drugged) driving as a serious issue that costs Idaho residents millions of dollars each year in lost time, lost property and, most importantly, lost lives,” said Jo Ann Moore, Idaho’s Office of Highway Safety manager.

In Spokane County, the most popular nonalcoholic drugs for motorists are methamphetamine and marijuana, Thornburg said.

A week and a half ago, a jury found Spokane resident Sean Watson guilty of two counts of vehicular assault for running over two girls while driving under the influence of PCP.

The Washington State Patrol, the city police and the Sheriff’s Office all have drug recognition experts to determine what kinds of drugs motorists are using. Kootenai County law officers and the Idaho State Police also have their own drug recognition experts.

The experts are called to crash scenes when alcohol doesn’t appear to be the only drug involved in a collision.

Those suspected motorists are asked a series of medical questions, like whether they are diabetic or suffer from epilepsy. Then they’re given an eye test called the horizontal gaze nystagmus, Thornburg said.

“The use of depressants, inhalants and PCPs, for example, causes rapid, involuntary eye jerking,” Thornburg said.

“A meth addict, for instance, isn’t going to be falling down like someone drunk on alcohol,” he added. What someone on meth will do, however, is speed through the test, ignoring instructions along the way.

A more comprehensive test can be conducted at the police station where blood tests are conducted to detect the presence of drugs.

Refusal to undergo such tests results in an immediate license suspension for one year under Washington law. Many suspected drugged drivers have already had their licenses suspended, so they are immediately taken to jail until their first court appearance, Thornburg said.

In Idaho, residents refusing blood or alcohol tests are immediately jailed and are held on $500 bond. Out-of-state residents face jail time and a $2,000 fine.

However, motorists can apply for a temporary permit for up to 30 days pending a final decision by a judge as to whether they can get their license back.

Authorities try to categorize the type of drugs the driver has abused: depressants, stimulants, PCP, hallucinogens, narcotic analgesics, inhalants and marijuana.

Spokane County drug recognition experts last year accurately confirmed the specific category of drug in a defendant’s body 90 percent of the time, Thornburg said.

In one case, Thornburg reported that he believed a motorist was under the influence of a depressant, even though the man told his defense attorney that he had been using meth, a stimulant.

“At trial, the defense attorney basically argued that his client was not guilty because he wasn’t using a depressant, he was using a stimulant,” Thornburg said.

The jury agreed with police and prosecutors that it didn’t really matter and convicted the man of driving under the influence, Thornburg said.

As for drivers using marijuana, Thornburg said they almost always fail the “dude factor.”

“At some point during the field test they refer to you as `dude,”’ he said.

Marijuana users have dilated pupils and their eyes are bloodshot. Their sense of time, distance and depth perception is skewed, Thornburg said.

People driving under the influence of prescription drugs are just as alarming.

Thornburg once pulled over a weaving motorist who had taken Tylenol cold medicine, Nyquil, and two Prozac pills after having a beer and a sandwich for dinner.

“His blood-alcohol content was only .02, but he kept falling to the pavement after he got out of the car,” Thornburg said.

Thornburg encourages people using certain prescription drugs to arrange for a ride or stay off the road altogether.

“The vast majority are surprised they’re affected by the prescription drugs,” Thornburg said.  “It’s a tough crime to combat because they’re not setting out with the intent to do themselves or someone else harm.”

Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Thornburg fills out an accident report. Photo by Brian Plonka/The Spokesman-Review
Memo: Kevin Blocker can be reached at (509) 459-5513 or by e-mail at

Record Number: 0212030042
Copyright (c) 2002 The Spokesman-Review