Throughout Alabama, hundreds of impaired drivers have taken prescription and illegal drugs, often with alcohol, according to information compiled by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences.
Now, the state is looking to improve its enforcement mechanisms and increase prosecutions for drugged driving.
“I think the general takeaway is that impaired drivers present on Alabama roadways are taking strong narcotics in combination with alcohol, oftentimes with deadly consequences,” said Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences Director Angelo Della Manna. “Our data demonstrates that the impaired drivers have, on average, three to four different drugs in their system while they’re operating a motor vehicle.”
Della Manna’s office tests every blood draw in suspected DUI cases, usually the result of a driver failing a field sobriety test. In fiscal year 2018, the five most detected substances were alcohol, marijuana, amphetamine, alprazolam and meth.
All were at levels that would impair drivers, and regularly in combination, Della Manna said.
But blood draws are often collected hours after a suspect is pulled over or in a traffic wreck. Law enforcement has to locate a judge to sign a warrant for the draw, and take the suspect to a hospital or a jail that has a phlebotomist. In that time, fast-metabolizing drugs like marijuana and cocaine can dissipate.
Alabama will soon be the first state to collect saliva from DUI suspects for confirmatory forensic laboratory testing. The new DUI collection kits, which Della Manna says should be in use statewide next year by all law enforcement agencies, will allow for the collection of a saliva sample at the roadside, in addition to the standard blood samples.
“It will supplement the blood tests and provide information on drug presence and levels more proximate to the driver being pulled over and/or present in a traffic wreck,” Della Manna said. “This will be much more informative in assessing what drugs are present in the saliva and blood at the time of the encounter with law enforcement at the roadside, and if the levels are indicative of impairment.”
A national problem
Nationally, almost 44% of fatally injured drivers tested positive for drugs in 2016, up from almost 28% in 2006, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Cpl. Jay Penton said Alabama mirrors the national trend.
“I think drugged driving nowadays may be a bigger problem than drunken driving,” Penton said. “We live in a prescribed society.”
He said DUI arrests used to be made on weekend nights. Now, impaired drivers can be found at 8 a.m. on a Monday. Some are on prescription medications and don’t realize they’re impaired, said Penton, but are “just as messed up as a drunken driver on a Friday night.”
“Because of that, I think drugs is a bigger problem than alcohol.”
Dr. Curt Harper, chief toxicologist for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, said the department has been monitoring drugged driving for about 10 years and has noticed trends unique to Alabama.
For several years, the prescription drug Alprazolam, commonly called Xanax, was the second most popular substance found in drugged drivers, after alcohol.
“That’s something most states don’t see,” Harper said.
Since 2018, marijuana has moved up to the No. 2 spot.
Other DUI trends in Alabama include an increase in meth use in the driving population, Harper said, and increased traffic fatalities related to marijuana use.
Penton is coordinator of the Alabama Drug Recognition Expert Program, started in 2008. There are now 66 trained DREs in 29 state, city, and county law enforcement agencies. They are trained in a 12-step process to recognize the category of drug affecting impaired drivers.
Penton said law enforcement has gotten better at recognizing drug impaired drivers, but more training and education about impairment is needed for them, as well as lawmakers, prosecutors and judges.
“We’ve basically made (drunken driving) socially unacceptable, but for drugged driving, we really don’t have an attitude about it, “Penton said. “People are indifferent to it.”
‘We’re missing a lot’
Law enforcement is looking for changes to state law in response to increased drugged driving.
“Right now, we’re missing a lot of DUIs,” Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said about the process to obtain blood samples. “There needs to be a simple procedure that protects the citizens and their rights.”
He’s suggesting a uniform, electronic warrant that law enforcement could send judges from their patrol cars, reducing the time needed to get a warrant.
People are sometimes charged with reckless driving instead of the more severe DUI because blood couldn’t be collected quickly, Matson said.
“You’re still going to have to have a judge’s signature,” Matson said. “You need that oversight.”
Matson said saliva drug tests will be a great tool for law enforcement, “but we still need blood.”
Meanwhile, current state law doesn’t set amounts for what’s considered impaired drugged driving, as it does with the .08 blood alcohol content level.
“Going forward, we’ll need those,” Matson said.
Sixteen states have a zero-tolerance policy for at least one drug. Zero-tolerance policies are most often enacted on illegal drugs, like heroine, cocaine and meth. That’s what Matson said he’d recommend to lawmakers.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has previously sponsored legislation to put legal standards on how much of some specific drugs a person must have in his or her system to be considered intoxicated. He told Alabama Daily News he planned to sponsor a bill again in 2020.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, seven states have per se laws in effect for one or more drugs. Per se laws make it illegal to drive with amounts of specified drugs in the body that exceed set limits.
Twelve states have zero-tolerance laws for marijuana use for driving. Another five have per se laws related to marijuana, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
In 2018, lawmakers did approve a bill from Orr to look at more of a drunken driver’s previous convictions when sentencing him or her. It extended the look-back period on prior convictions from five to 10 years for misdemeanors. The law says any previous felony DUI convictions could be considered when sentencing repeat offenders.