Oklahoma City police Sgt. David Roberts noticed a driver swerve into oncoming traffic.
As he was pulling over the car, he saw the driver roll down all four windows. Out came clouds of smoke.
“I saw the smoke and smelled the odor of burnt marijuana,” Roberts recalled. Once the driver stopped, Roberts walked up to the car and asked the driver, “Have you been smoking?”
The driver was honest: “Yes.”
The driver went to jail on a complaint of driving under the influence of illegal drugs. He later was convicted, joining an increasing number of drivers getting in trouble for “driving high.”
Statistics from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation show that in all of 2013 there were 32 drivers in fatal or injury crashes whose blood tests were positive for marijuana. In the first three months of 2014, there already have been 17 such positive tests.
Blood tests showing marijuana usage typically are not performed unless there is an injury accident. Roberts said he often can tell by his own observation if a person has been smoking pot.
There’s often the smell of burnt marijuana and the telltale red, bloodshot eyes. He also looks for small amounts of green flakes on the tongue from marijuana cigarettes.
“It impairs your motor function and doesn’t allow you to operate a vehicle in a safe manner,” he said.
People can be convicted of driving under the influence of illegal drugs, marijuana, based on the observations of the officer.
Blood tests of drivers for marijuana in Oklahoma are not fair, say drug attorneys and advocates who want marijuana legalized.
A positive blood test for marijuana may not always mean a person is high at the time of the crash, or too impaired to drive, said Oklahoma City drug attorney Chad Moody. For example, a person could smoke marijuana legally in Colorado up to 30 days before a crash in Oklahoma.
The typical high from using marijuana lasts just two to four hours, he said. After that, there could be no physical impairment from smoking marijuana, but marijuana traces can stay in a person’s blood for up to 30 days or longer.
In Oklahoma, any detectable amount of marijuana in a person’s blood is illegal. Moody said he is being requested more frequently by clients who are convicted for using marijuana up to 30 days before their arrest.
“It is absolutely ridiculous,” Moody said. “There is no claiming that marijuana can impair driving 30 days later.”
He said he has seen a slight increase in the number of clients he represents on driving under the influence of marijuana charges recently.
Norma Sapp, the director of the Oklahoma chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, NORML, said the blood test for marijuana does not reflect a driver’s performance on the roads.
“It’s not fair,” Sapp said. “And it’s definitely not scientific to accuse someone of being impaired when they just have it in their blood.”
She said she does not think smoking marijuana causes most people to drive poorly, and smokers may drive more carefully and pay more attention to detail, concentrating more on the immediate task, she said.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Capt. Ronnie Hampton disagrees.
Hampton said people who are high on marijuana do not drive as well as others. He said law officers are better these days at recognizing more drivers who have been using pot on Oklahoma roads and have seen more wrecks. Stoned drivers are poor at multitasking, and have trouble “walking and chewing gum at the same time,” he said.
And he said that since marijuana for recreational use was legalized in Colorado and Washington in November 2012, more people think driving high on pot is not dangerous.
“I think what we’re seeing are more people on the roadside who are obviously impaired,” Hampton said.
He said drivers who have smoked marijuana have slower response times.
Hampton said troopers test drivers’ coordination and vision. A driver may be asked, for example, to look at a trooper’s finger and follow it back and forth.
Hampton said it is his job to crack down on drivers who have smoked marijuana. He said he believes stoned drivers don’t drive as well as most others.
In December 2012, Hampton worked a fatality wreck in Marshall County that involved a driver who tested positive for marijuana use and lost control in a curve on a county road. A passenger riding in the SUV was killed.
“I’ve heard people say ‘I’ve never seen anyone who has smoked marijuana kill anybody,’” Hampton said. “Well, we have.”