Cannabis users help police study impairment

·6 min read

Mar. 31—A pungent haze filled a white tent at the Frederick Police Training Center on Plant Road, off Linganore Road, on Tuesday night. Opened bags of chips were spread across two tables, as people laughed and coughed between puffs of joints and vape pens.

It may have been 6:20 p.m. in Frederick, but it was certainly 4:20 p.m. somewhere.

Roughly 30 police officers from Frederick, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties studied the effects of cannabis impairment in a training lab on Tuesday.

The police did not consume cannabis. Instead, they studied 10 volunteer "consumers" who have medical marijuana licenses.

The consumers got high two separate times for small groups of officers to conduct sobriety tests on them, and look for signs of impairment.

The consumers also did a driving simulation — developed by Morgan State University doctorate students — before and after getting high to see how cannabis affected their ability to drive.

All consumers got high using inhalants, but in different forms. Some smoked bud or flower, others vaped THC concentrates.

Montgomery County Police Department Officer Jayme Derbyshire said the volunteers were instructed to consume about the same as what they consume regularly.

Police officers at the training session said impaired driving is always a cause for concern. But with the legalization of marijuana in Maryland taking effect on July 1, police need to be prepared in identifying signs of a driver under the influence of cannabis.

Maryland voters legalized marijuana for those 21 and older in a November 2022 referendum.

Derbyshire worried about an increase in impaired driving and crashes.

"I think it's more important to do these now than it has been in the past only because things are really gonna change with regard to traffic safety come July 1," Derbyshire said. "There's not a lot, unfortunately, in that legislation that deals with the impaired driving aspect or the traffic safety aspect."

According to a study published on the National Institutes of Health website, the legalization of recreational marijuana "may be associated with a small yet significant increase in fatal motor vehicle collisions and fatalities."

Research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 2020 found that the number of drivers in Washington state testing positive for marijuana after fatal crashes doubled from 9% to 18% after the state legalized the substance in 2012.

However, the study pointed out there was only a correlation between marijuana legalization and an increase in fatal crashes, not a causation.

Derbyshire started this type of training in Montgomery County in 2018. The police department has hosted it about once a quarter since then, she said.

Frederick Police Department Cpl. Stephanie Sparks, a drug recognition expert, brought the training to Frederick. She has attended all of Montgomery County's training labs and wants officers in Frederick to learn what she knows.

"Since we're getting ready to legalize this on July 1, they need to know the difference and what they're looking for because obviously cannabis impairment is different than alcohol impairment," she said.

Officers ran the volunteer consumers through a standardized field sobriety test, which includes three tests officers use to typically check for alcohol consumption. They also did other tests more tailored to see if someone is under the influence of alcohol.

For example, they made the consumers take nine steps on a line, heel to toe, then turn around and do it again, which is usually a way to look for alcohol impairment. A person high on cannabis might lose count, or have trouble with balance, Derbyshire said.

But a more cannabis-tailored test was making consumers close their eyes, put their heads back and let police know when 30 seconds have passed.

Cannabis affects a person's perception of time, Derbyshire said, so they typically can't accurately gauge when 30 seconds have passed.

"Sometimes, they're really quick and they say they think it's 30 seconds, and it's been like 18, and sometimes they're kind of 35 or 50 seconds," she said.

Regis Blahut, a retired police officer and one of the volunteer consumers at the lab, joked that he wouldn't be able to do the heel-toe test even if he wasn't high.

Blahut said he began using medical marijuana after being injured on duty. He was taking opioids for the pain, and wanted an alternative, he said.

He volunteered for the lab to help fellow officers, he said, and educate them, so they can be better at their jobs.

"I think they're doing a good thing here," he said. "And the more we can research it, the more we can have the answers. So, you know, it's them working with the state's attorneys and working with the medical research and all that stuff that they're doing."

Wendy Diehl said she volunteered as a consumer to learn and to help others learn.

She used to work for gLeaf, a medical marijuana dispensary in Frederick. She's volunteered in other labs in which she's taught officers about cannabis.

Diehl said cannabis typically gives people a feeling of mental clarity, heightened senses and increase precaution.

But then when she took the tests, she had problems with her balance, her eyes were fluttering and she had tremors. Even if she felt mentally sharp, she said, she was clearly physically impaired.

"It opens your eyes to think, OK, well, maybe mentally you think you're OK, but you don't feel intoxicated, but clearly we would fail the sobriety test," she said.

And though what the officers were studying were serious, the energy was jovial. Frederick County Sheriff's Office Deputy Jesse Patterson felt that the course knocked down the barrier between police and consumer.

"It bridges that gap, because there's even people who feel naturally uncomfortable talking to us about it even though it's medically prescribed and hopefully this just really shows that we don't really care about the product they're using as much as just making sure everyone's safe," Patterson said.

Frederick police Officer Sara Strayer said she does a lot of DUI enforcement, and this course was a treasure trove of information. Not only was she learning signs of cannabis impairment, but she was talking with consumers to learn what they knew.

"This course is really good for me to see in a controlled environment how [cannabis] can affect people," Strayer said.

Through the training, police got into the weeds of cannabis impairment.

Sparks said she's hoping to make the training a regular course for other officers who want to learn.

Follow Clara Niel on Twitter: @clarasniel