Maine Leaders Struggle to Address Drug-Impaired Driving

Drunk driving in Maine is a serious problem that claims innocent lives year after year. A number of initiatives have been taken in recent years with the goal of reducing these tragedies, including tougher penalties on impaired drivers.

But much of this focus has glossed over drug-impaired driving, which has become a growing threat as we are realizing a heroin epidemic and are considering the legalization of recreational marijuana.

This issue was raised recently at a Portland summit that involved police, prosecutors, traffic safety experts and others – many of whom argued that greater education is going to be essential. 

Although alcohol is still the most commonly-used intoxicant detected in motorists, an increasing number of drivers are found to be under the influence of heroin, prescription drugs and marijuana. That’s according to experts who weighed in at the gathering, which was hosted by the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety and AAA Northern New England.

Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, what we are seeing today with OUI drugs is similar to the crisis we endured in the 1980s with OUI alcohol. He conceded law enforcement officials do not know exactly how big the problem is, in part because it’s tougher to detect intoxication by drugs than it is alcohol.

With alcohol, it’s generally accepted that any blood or breath tests that returns a concentration level of 0.08 or higher is an indication of impairment. Plus, the observable signs of alcohol impairment tend to be more obvious: i.e., slurred speech, inability to balance, bloodshot/ glassy eyes, the smell of alcohol on one’s breath, belligerence, etc.

Not so for drugs. It’s simply not that obvious.

In fact, AAA released a study recently that made it clear blood tests are essentially useless for purposes of trying to test drivers for marijuana intoxication. At the same time, we’re seeing a huge spike in Maine with regard to heroin use. State officials reported there were 272 fatal heroin overdoses in 2015. On top of that, there is concern about the rising rate of prescription drugs, especially among older drivers who use them legally. Regardless of whether the individual has a valid prescription, opioids and benzodiazepines can impair one’s ability to drive safely. According to The Portland Press Herald, some 70 million pills were prescribed last year in Maine.

State officials said they need to come up with some type of a game plan before recreational marijuana is allowed in the state. Authorities say it’s likely not a matter of if but when, especially as Maine – one of the first states to allow medicinal marijuana in 1999 – has always been more open to the prospect.

In Washington, one of a handful of states that now allow recreational marijuana, fatal crashes involving drivers who use marijuana more than doubled after legalization. In 2013, it was revealed about 13 percent of weekend nighttime drivers had the drug in their system, which was up from 9 percent back in 2007. It should be noted, however, that marijuana lingers in the body for some time after use, so detection in one’s blood stream doesn’t necessarily indicate impairment.

Police in Maine say they are working to beef up their roadside drug recognition exams to help officers improve their detection of drug-impaired drivers. As our Portland injury lawyers understand it, there are only 90 drug recognition experts in Maine.

If you are the victim of a Bangor car accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Maine summit grapples with drug-impaired driving, May 18, 2016, By Gillian Graham, Portland Press Herald

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