DRUG LAW TARGETS IMPAIRED DRIVERS
Driving under the influence of drugs becomes easier to prosecute in Virginia as a tougher drug law takes effect today.
Approved this past winter by the General Assembly, the law establishes a blood concentration threshold for certain drugs, akin to blood alcohol content standards used in alcohol-related cases.
It's included in a handful of new laws that target alcohol and drug use, including increased penalties for hunting while intoxicated and for refusing a sobriety test. Another law adds mopeds to the list of vehicles subject to Virginia's DUI laws.
Law enforcement officials credit the current 0.08 blood alcohol concentration limit for reducing the number of intoxicated drivers on Virginia roads.
No threshold levels existed for drugs, said Bob McDonnell, chairman of the House of Delegates' Courts of Justice Committee and the GOP's candidate for attorney general this fall.
That changed today.
Threshold limits have now been established for cocaine, methamphetamine, PCP and ecstasy.
The intoxicating agent present in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, is not included in the new regulations.
Del. Bill Carrico, R-Independence, said his original bill included marijuana, but it was removed after lawmakers heard testimony from marijuana advocates that too little statistical data exists to establish a threshold of intoxication.
Pete Marone, director of technical services with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, said drug effects are not as consistent as with alcohol and can affect people differently.
Furthermore, the effect can be complicated depending on the drug combinations that may be ingested.
He said data is being compiled nationwide through blood tests from drug cases to determine a threshold for marijuana intoxication. Since human drug testing is difficult, Marone said, getting the data to establish a defensible level that everyone can agree on will take time.
Carrico plans to add marijuana to the list in the future legislation as more data becomes available.
"You can't have it in your pocket; why have it in your system?" he said.
Carrico prefers a zero tolerance approach to drug use, but said the threshold levels for the drugs are adequate to keep users off the road.
"If you take a snort of cocaine, you're over it," he said.
Capt. Kevin Schmitt of the Campbell County Sheriff's Office said the new law wouldn't change the way law enforcement officers check impaired drivers.
He added that it's easier to detect alcohol during a traffic stop.
"With alcohol, you can smell it on them," Schmitt said. "With drugs, there is no odor."
Officers often rely on physical signs of intoxication associated with impairment to employ a field sobriety test.
Breathalyzer tests bolster the evidence against the driver in alcohol cases, but the test is ineffective to prove drug use. That means officers usually depend on the driver's behavior to establish probable cause for an arrest.
A blood test can only be administered after the driver has been arrested.
That's when the benefits of the new law take effect, said Mike Doucette, chief deputy commonwealth attorney for Lynchburg.
Previous convictions for driving under the influence of drugs relied on testimony from the arresting officer, the blood test that confirmed the presence of a narcotic and expert testimony from a toxicologist who confirmed whether the narcotic's blood concentration was enough to cause impairment.
Such expert testimony is unnecessary now that an accepted threshold has been established.
"It eliminates the requirement that we prove the person was under the influence. We just have to prove they had a level of drugs in their system," said Campbell County Commonwealth Attorney Neil Vener.
It's difficult to determine how prevalent driving under the influence of drugs is in Central Virginia. Law enforcement agencies can't easily separate drug-related arrests from alcohol-related arrests.
In 2004, Lynchburg officers arrested 187 drivers for driving under the influence of either drugs or alcohol. They have arrested 146 drivers since the first of the year.
Campbell County arrested 115 drivers in 2004 and 46 so far this year.
In most cases, alcohol was identified as a primary factor in the arrest, Vener said. He added that no further tests are necessary after alcohol has been identified because drivers can't be convicted further for using both substances.
By not testing beyond the alcohol standard in drunken-driving cases, it's impossible to tell whether drugs were also present in the driver's system.
"It's driving while intoxicated. It doesn't matter if it's alcohol or cocaine. It's the intoxication that is the crime," Vener said.