In the possibility of legalization of recreational cannabis use, the Rio Rancho Police Department has been preparing for a decade.

Rio Rancho Police Department

“In order to protect our citizens, we have taken proactive steps to be well-trained and know what we are doing. We have been more proactive than a lot of other agencies,” said RRPD Lt. Joel Holt.

Holt is a drug recognition expert, or DRE, who trains other officers in the DRE program and Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement program.

ARIDE training helps an officer identify drug impairment similar to the DRE program, with less of a time commitment.

Officers are sent to the programs through funding by the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

The DRE program was developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Capt. Andrew Rodriguez plans to send as many officers as possible to the Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement program. He said it is a great feeder to the DRE program.

Cannabis now

“(Being a DRE) is one of the more difficult specialties for an officer to have. What we end up doing is we fly an officer out to California, where we do field certifications and do an evaluation on volunteers that are actually on drugs. And that is interesting,” Holt said.

Over the past 10-15 years tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, levels in cannabis have become more concentrated, he said. A drug that once contained an average of 5-10 percent THC can now be concentrated to 40-50 percent.

“So marijuana, that’s kind of a big thing for us right now because it is so easy to get,” he said.

With concentrates of cannabis like “wax,” THC levels can reach 90 percent.

“Which means the high you would get from marijuana 10, 15, 20 years ago is an entirely different thing than what you get now,” Holt said.

Edibles are an issue as well, because it takes anywhere from one to three hours for it to take effect, he said.

“What ends up happening is a person will take it, nothing happens, they think, ‘Oh, I better eat another one.’ Now they have doubled their dose so when they both kick in after a couple hours, they are significantly higher than they thought they were,” Holt said, “If they drive on that, they are at a pretty significant risk to themselves and others on the roadway.”

Driving impaired

The Cannabis Regulation Act says the creation of the “impaired driving fund” will provide educational campaigns about driving while under the influence of cannabis.

Holt said RRPD hears people claim to be better drivers while they are under the influence of cannabis. No matter what the drivers may think, they are not, he said.

Every officer at RRPD can successfully assess a drunken driver. Officers use a breath test to determine a driver’s blood-alcohol level and field-sobriety tests to detect impairment.

According to an organization called Field Sobriety, three basic field tests include:

• The horizontal gaze, a test designed to measure involuntary jerking of an impaired driver’s eye;

• The one-leg stand test divides a driver’s attention in order to measure attention and coordination; and

• The walk-and-turn test also divides the driver’s attention to measure one’s ability to follow directions while under the influence.

“A sober person can easily do several things at once that are simple and drive successfully. A person that is impaired by drugs can’t,” Holt said.

These procedures are relatively basic, Holt said.

“What is not basic is dealing with people who are on drugs and driving. And when I say drugs, I don’t mean just marijuana, but I mean all drugs,” he said.

This training has prepared him to identify someone driving while under the influence of any kind ­— whether it be prescription drugs, illegal drugs or a medical condition, Holt said.

Once an officer detects impairment in a driver, they bring them back to the station where a DRE will run an assessment.

“What we do is a continuation of the DWI investigation,” he said.

Holt’s investigation will go into more depth:

• He will first redo field sobriety tests;

• He will measure pupil size, pulse rate and blood pressure; and

• He will examine physiological signs such as muscle tone or injections sites.

While conducting an examination, Holt is asking about the drivers’ days and if they have taken any substances of any kind. He is not only looking for evidence of possible drug use, but also checking for a medical condition.

Rodriguez said there have been occasions when an officer brings a driver to the station for a DRE to run an investigation, and the expert identified a medical condition.

“We end up calling for the fire department or an ambulance for a paramedic because we have identified a medical condition that person might not even be aware of and it starts the process,” Rodriguez said. “Otherwise that person may have been booked into a jail and that jeopardizes the person’s life, and that puts a lot of liability on the officer and department.”

Expert opinion

After an evaluation, a DRE will submit an expert opinion.

RRPD then takes blood and has it sent to the lab for testing, he said.

Since DREs are considered experts in drug recognition, their opinion is treated as such in court.

“Because of their training and experience, they are able to go to court and explain to the judge and jurors exactly why they believe that person was impaired at that time and what drug category they are under the influence of,” Rodriguez said. “That expert opinion is corroborated by the drug results.”

In 2019, RRPD made three arrests of people exclusively high on cannabis.

Often, if someone is partaking in recreational use of cannabis, they are probably drinking or doing other drugs, Holt said.

If this is the case, charges will be made for those other substances, he said.

If the Cannabis Regulation Act were to pass, each department in law enforcement will be required to submit a report each fiscal year on the number of arrests, citations and violations related to cannabis. The data will be broken down by:

• Penalty level; and

• Race, ethnicity, age and gender.

The report is submitted to the state Department of Public Safety, where the data will be made public.

“If this was 12 years ago, we would be alarmed. Twelve years ago, we had nobody from the department that was a DRE. We had an indifference towards drug impairment; the focus has always been for alcohol impairment,” Rodriguez said.

There are five DREs, including Holt, in the department and four previous DREs, including Rodriguez.