Police turn to drug recognition experts to determine marijuana impairment in drivers

    Police turn to drug recognition experts to determine marijuana impairment in drivers. (WJAR)

    Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Oates is keeping a close eye on how retail marijuana stores affect Massachusetts and spill over into Rhode Island. He’s most concerned about keeping marijuana-impaired drivers off the streets.

    ”The legal issue of you buying it in Massachusetts and taking it to your home to Rhode Island - I don't think that's a big concern to any of the law enforcement chiefs that I know,” Oates told NBC 10. “Our concern is the danger of them operating the vehicle impaired and causing a crash.”

    That's where patrolman Michael Martinsen steps into the picture. Martinsen is one of two drug recognition experts (DRE) in the Woonsocket Police Department who underwent three weeks of training. A drug recognition expert’s testimony about a driver's level of intoxication can be used as evidence in court, which is critical for police since they don’t have a chemical test to determine how much marijuana is in someone's system.

    Martinsen told NBC 10 there are several advanced road tests he uses to detect marijuana-impaired drivers.

    “We have them close their eyes, tilt their head backwards and we try to estimate the passage of 30 seconds,” Martinsen said. “In that time, what we're looking for is someone's eyes to flutter back and forth. That's an uncontrollable jerking of the eyes.”

    Martinsen said counting to 30 seconds is key too since impaired drivers may have trouble determining time.

    “It could be slower cause we're decreasing the brain's ability to count properly - everything is more relaxed now so it's gonna take them a lot longer to estimate 30 seconds,” Martinsen said.

    As Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo works to legalize recreational marijuana stores in Rhode Island, Oates said more drug recognition experts are needed to keep impaired drivers off the road.

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