By Christopher anderson
WASHINGTON – Maryland is one of 42 states lacking “zero-tolerance” drugged-driving laws and one of only two states that limits the type of drug testing police can do on drivers, according a nationwide drug policy analysis released Thursday.
The study by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program found that only eight states — Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Utah — have adopted zero-tolerance laws that make it illegal to operate a car when any level of drugs are present in a driver’s blood.
Under statutes in other states, including Maryland, prosecutors typically must prove that drugs and not some other factor impaired the driver’s ability to drive safely.
“The way they’re written, it makes it very difficult to prosecute,” said J. Michael Walsh, president of the research group that conducted the study.
While drunken driving has received a lot of attention in recent years, the study’s sponsors said, drugged driving is a relatively unknown — but widespread — problem. The study cited a recent national survey that showed nearly 9 million Americans in a 12-month period had driven within two hours of using marijuana or cocaine.
“It only makes sense that if the drug is illegal to possess that it should be illegal for people to drive with it in their system,” said Jerry Landau, a Maricopa County, Ariz., prosecutor who has charged drugged drivers under Arizona’s zero-tolerance law.
Walsh’s report called on all states to adopt zero-tolerance laws and to tie them to treatment programs for offenders.
Walsh criticized Maryland’s policy that restricts police to conducting only blood tests, not urine or saliva tests, on drivers suspected of having drugs in their systems. Currently, police in Maryland must bring drivers suspected of drug use to a medical facility for testing.
“I think that’s very restrictive and needs to be looked at carefully,” Walsh said of the blood-test restrictions.
Without a change in the law, Maryland might not be able to take advantage of a range of new field tests that can quickly test drivers for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, PCP and a host of other illegal drugs. Texas is the only other state that places such restrictions on drug testing.
Unlike alcohol impairment, drug impairment is not easy to identify, Landau said.
“There’s no correlation between X number of nanograms of cocaine in the blood and driving impairment,” he said.
Landau and others said that stricter drugged-driving laws should not be just an excuse to arrest more people for drugs, but they should also provide an opportunity to get those arrested into mandatory drug treatment.
Currently, 31 states make drug treatment available to offenders, but Maryland is not one of them.
“Judges are finding that treatment does reduce repeat offenders,” said Linda Chezen, a circuit court judge in Indiana.
The study also found that too few police officers nationwide have been trained to identify drivers who may be driving drugged. While Walsh said Maryland’s drug-recognition is comprehensive, he said the number of trained officers — a state police spokesman said there are currently 112 drug- recognition experts in the state — falls short of what is needed.
Walsh said prospects for changing the laws in Maryland are iffy, noting the long fight to lower the state’s blood-alcohol limit to .08. But he added that changing drugged-driving policy might be easier because it would not face stiff opposition from the hospitality industry.
Delegate William Bronrott, D-Montgomery, who led the fight to lower the blood-alcohol limit in the state, conceded that most of the focus has been on alcohol. But he said he would support legislation that would help get drugged drivers off the roads.
“We need to close the legal loopholes where they exist to better ensure the public safety, whether its alcohol or other drugs,” Bronrott said.