It's a day the pro-marijuana crowd has been waiting for. As of July 1st, if you're caught with an ounce or less of pot, or fewer than five grams of hashish, you'll be slapped with a civil fine rather than a criminal penalty. But Vermont law enforcement has its reservations about the changes.
"The crossover then into driving is where the concern will be -- and hopefully that's not the case. Hopefully there's not an increase," said Colchester Police Sgt. James Roy.
Sgt. Roy is a Drug Recognition Expert or DRE. He's one of 28 specially trained officers statewide who patrol cops' call to scenes -- when they think they've pulled over a driver impaired by a drug other than alcohol. Evaluations are often conducted at police stations or the hospital -- not roadside. DREs can request a blood sample from the driver and they don't need a warrant.
So how do the pros spot drivers high on pot? "You can't pinpoint one particular observation, one indicator in and of itself," Sgt Roy said. "DREs are trained to look at the totality of the circumstances. So what is that person's blood pressure? What is their pulse rate? What are their pupils reaction to light? What are the size of their pupils?
"Nobody should mistake this decriminalization of possession as an opportunity to drive while under the influence of marijuana," said Chittenden County Prosecutor T.J. Donovan. County prosecutors say drivers should know decriminalization doesn't mean laws loosen for those behind the wheel, and they stress that the one ounce threshold doesn't matter when it comes to drugging and driving. "If you are driving with a joint in your center console, clearly under one ounce, you're still going to get stopped and you're going to get arrested," Donovan said.
And police point out that drivers taking prescription meds or medicinal marijuana will not get special treatment. "While that person may need that therapeutic dose for whatever is going on, that still doesn't allow them to then get behind the wheel under the influence or impaired by that," Sgt Roy said.
The state's drug recognition experts look for drivers under the influence of drugs in seven different categories. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of central nervous system depressants -- like anti-anxiety medications -- account for the majority of the state's impairment cases. Cannabis and prescription painkillers tie for second.
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