Getting Answers: marijuana use and driving impaired

Western Mass News is getting answers from one local department on what they are seeing on the roads for arrests while operating under the influence.
Published: Sep. 19, 2022 at 6:44 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

LUDLOW, Mass. (WGGB/WSHM) - Marijuana has been legal for recreational use in the Bay State for six years now, but law enforcement officers still have no way to easily test drivers to see if they are driving impaired.

Western Mass News is getting answers from one local department on what they are seeing on the roads for arrests while operating under the influence.

Across the country, there is a growing trend to legalize marijuana. Here in Massachusetts, marijuana became legal in 2012 for medical use. Four years later, recreational marijuana was legalized for adults over the age of 21.

However, we wanted to know: how has the legalization of marijuana impacted people when they get behind the wheel?

According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, statewide OUI drug violations have decreased about 20%.

However, here in western Mass., including Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire Counties, the number of drug OUI violations, which include marijuana, increased nearly 4% over the same time period, reporting 295 violations in 2019, 379 in 2020, and 306 in 2021.

This is a trend that has been seen in the town of Ludlow. Western Mass News got answers from Ludlow Police Chief Daniel Valadas.

“We see a lot more marijuana, tremendously more marijuana,” Chief Valadas said. “I’m not telling you anything that nobody knows. You just drive down the street and you can smell it. You walk by people, you can smell it.”

According to the police department’s data, OUI drug arrests doubled after the state legalized recreational use.

From 2012 to 2015, Ludlow Police reported 4.5 OUI arrests compared to 8.71 in 2016 to 2022.

“We looked at it and we saw a doubling of the OUI drug arrests, while OUI alcohol only went up about 20%,” Chief Valadas told us. “We are following the national trends, if you will, but you are seeing an increase in accidents related to drugs because of proliferation when you make something legal, and we’re going to have more consumption of it, so therefore, it would result in an increase. We have seen that, not only with the accidents, but with specifically OUI drug arrests.”

However, Chief Valadas said that making an arrest for driving under the influence is more difficult when it comes to determining a specific substance like marijuana.

“That’s the challenge for law-enforcement personnel,” he explained. “You do not have a roadside physical exam, you don’t have an exam that you can get afterwards like blood alcohol concentration.”

Chief Valadas said that marijuana is most commonly seen, especially since the drug was legalized recreationally in the state six years ago, even in those under 21.

“Just like alcohol, marijuana is widely used. Just by our arrest rates and what we see, it is more accepted than, obviously, heavy narcotic use,” he said. “That heavy concentration, that high potency marijuana or hypotensive THC, is incredibly dangerous. From what I have read, nationally, we’re definitely seeing an uptick in that.”

The Ludlow Police Department has two drug recognition experts to help identify impaired drivers, but prosecuting these arrests is often still a challenge as the officer needs signs and symptoms of the specific drug.

“Some of that can be shown by plain view or paraphernalia, or you might have an admittance by the operator that they consume something,” Chief Valadas said. “You might see something in plain view that shows heroin use or crack cocaine or cocaine use itself, and that’s the big leap the law officer has to make, to show what that substance is and that is very, very difficult compared to alcohol.”

However, Chief Valadas is hopeful there will soon be an easier way for officers to keep drug impaired drivers off the roads.

“I think someday, there will be tests out there,” he said. “It will be whether or not, at what point in time, does something like that become accepted, not only by the legislature, but in Massachusetts courts. Something like a swab test or saliva test or something like that.”