A growing percentage of arrests statewide for driving under the influence are related to prescription and illicit drugs, not alcohol, authorities say.
Overall DUI arrests are down, but authorities attribute the surge in DUI drug arrests to a combination of better enforcement and the continuing fallout from the prescription-drug epidemic.
Arizona has nearly 500 officers trained to recognize the symptoms of drug impairment, compared with only a few two decades ago.
“I think the availability of prescription drugs in great quantities has created this,” said Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “This has created a prescription-drug epidemic.”
He said prescription painkillers and synthetic drugs such as “spice” are common culprits.
Gilbert police Sgt. Jim Lahti, who supervises the night traffic squad, said he remembers meeting two officers who were the only drug-recognition officers in the state 22 years ago when he was police recruit.
Officers would suspect someone was impaired by a substance other than alcohol but were unable to pinpoint it because of a lack of training, he said.
“We have officers that are better trained now in recognizing drug impairment,” Lahti said. “The other factor is that there are more people driving who are impaired by drugs.”
While the number of DUI arrests dropped more than 13 percent in 2012 from 2011, the number of DUI drug arrests increased 12 percent, according to Governor’s Office of Highway Safety statistics.
The percentage of DUI arrests that were drug-related increased to 14 percent in 2012 from 11 percent a year earlier.
Even more dramatic is the increase in drug-related DUI arrests over a longer period, with the number rising 18-fold from 2003 to 2012.
The trend was spotlighted during the holiday season by the annual East Valley DUI Task Force.
Mesa officers working with other agencies throughout the region made 540 DUI arrests from Nov. 21 to New Year’s Day.
Of those arrests, 344, or 63percent, were for drug DUIs. Other participating agencies made fewer drug arrests, but nearly one out of three arrests was drug-related.
The 2012 East Valley Task Force figures further confirm a trend noted in Mesa during the 2011 calendar year, when DUI drug arrests outpaced alcohol arrests for the first time.
Mesa police Lt. Thomas Intrieri, who supervises the traffic unit, said there has been a 10-year trend toward gradually increasing numbers of DUI drug arrests.
All Mesa motorcycle officers are drug-recognition officers, trained to recognize symptoms of drug use, he said. Most of them also have 10 or more years of experience enforcing traffic laws.
“If you are not trained to recognize a problem, how do you know of one?” Intrieri wrote in an e-mail.
Lahti said officers see a gamut of impairment from a wide range of prescription drugs, along with prescription drugs mixed with alcohol.
“It’s a wide spectrum,” he said. “You see people using muscle relaxers where they can hardly keep their eyes open, and they want to drive a car.”
Lahti points out that although alcohol has been legal for years, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for anyone to drive impaired on any drug, including medical marijuana.
By Jim Walsh The Republic Mon Jan 14, 2013 10:58 PM
Dear Drugs-Forum readers: We are a small non-profit that runs one of the most read drug information & addiction help websites in the world. We serve over 4 million readers per month, and have costs like all popular websites: servers, hosting, licenses and software. To protect our independence we do not run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations which average $25. If everyone reading this would donate $5 then this fund raiser would be done in an hour. If Drugs-Forum is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by donating whatever you can today. Donations are currently not sufficient to pay our bills and keep the site up. Your help is most welcome. Thank you.