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DUIIs not all from a bottle

Sgt. Don Lane has had a front row seat to some bizarre drug reactions. 

One man high on mushrooms was convinced he was Jesus; another found fascination with shadows cast by the streetlights streaming into Lane's patrol car. Lane has seen methamphetamine users who have been up for days with zero sleep, people convinced the FBI and NASA and other federal agencies were watching their every move, "Truman Show"-style. 

Lane is one of Medford police's 10 certified drug recognition experts — in cop lingo a DRE — responsible for investigating which drug, physical or mental ailment is at play in suspected driving under the influence cases after alcohol is ruled out. 

“They try to make a determination due to illegal drugs, prescription drugs or some other controlled substance, or if it’s due to a mental or physical illness, because there are a lot of illnesses out there that can cause impairment,” Lane says. 

Through September of this year, Medford officers have responded to 66 such cases. 

OSP provides training

DRE officers are trained by Oregon State Police through the Oregon Drug Evaluation and Classification program. 

In its 20th year, the program "trains police officers to recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs other than, or in addition to, alcohol," according to the ODEC website. All U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and some parts of Canada participate in the program, with 205 certified DRE officers in Oregon alone. 

The training itself includes more than a month in the classroom and in the field. Federal dollars fund part of the program, with matching funds from the state and individual agencies. Sgt. Evan Sether, the state coordinator for the DRE program, says it costs about $2,000 to train an officer.

During classroom training, officers are immersed in study about the different types of drugs and the symptoms they present. Sether says physicians, paramedics, and specialty doctors such as ophthalmologists help teach physiology to the trainees.  

"The bulk of the time is spent on the different drug categories, the different drug trends, the symptomology, trade names, nicknames, common methods of ingestion," Sether says. "We try to get very detailed in each of these drug categories during the classroom portion." 

Officers are trained to look for signs of controlled substance use from drugs grouped into seven categories: central nervous system (CNS) depressants (anti-anxiety medication), CNS stimulants (methamphetamine, cocaine), hallucinogens (LSD, mushrooms), disassociative anesthetics (PCP), narcotic analgesics (opiates), inhalants (aerosols, glues) and cannabis.

Despite the legalization of marijuana earlier this year, Lane said that at least so far there hasn't been a significant increase in DUIIs related to pot.

Each drug category brings with it unique signs and symptoms among users. CNS stimulant users are typically anxious, have body tremors, dilated pupils and rigid muscle tone and talk quickly. Narcotic analgesic users, on the other hand, have sluggish symptoms: droopy eyes, slow response times; they are often coherent but slow to respond.

"All the different drugs present different clues," said Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau.  

Officers agree to assist other area agencies upon completion of their OSP training, so Medford officers are sharing their expertise with other departments.

DREs called in 

Officers who pull over drivers suspected of intoxication will initially test for alcohol. If nothing registers during a blow test but the officer still suspects impairment, a DRE will be called to the station, where they perform the tests. 

Tests include coordination exercises such as standing on one leg or walking and doing an about-face turn. DRE officers are also trained to take multiple pulse readings, test blood pressure, temperature and muscle tone. Injection sites are sought out, as are medical histories. They also get a urine sample, which is sent for testing at an OSP laboratory.

"It's about collecting as much evidence, as many facts as possible," Sether says.  

Officer Steve MacLennan, a DRE with Ashland police, says it's important to get the impartial second set of eyes that DREs can provide on such cases.

"We will do things the same way each and every time," he says. "It is very standardized." 

Sometimes, the tests show no impairment of any kind. The witnessed erratic driving can be due to other factors, such as a medical condition or simple stress. 

"We do get those," MacLennan says. "Sometimes you'll get people who are just out there and they get nervous." 

Officers have to show impairment at the time of the tests. A urine sample that shows drugs in someone's system isn't enough. Cannabis, for example, can still be in a person's system days after it is consumed, and could show up in the urine sample, but that person would be charged only if he or she is under the influence at the time they are being tested, Lane says. 

"We have to show that it’s psychoactive at the point in time," he said. "It's up to us to show that they were impaired at the time." 

Moving forward 

Over the past five years, the number of calls for Medford DREs have fluctuated.

In 2010, they were called upon 56 times. That jumped to 89 in 2011, then again to 112 in 2012. Calls went down two years in a row after that — 96 in 2013 and 77 in 2014.  Through September of this year, the number is at 66, about 20 percent higher than the number seen through September of last year. Lane estimates the total will hit somewhere around 90. 

Lane isn't sure whether recent cannabis legalization will keep DREs busier than usual going forward.

"It's too early to tell," he said. "I would theorize it's going to, but I don't think it's going to be an immediate spike." 

Increase or no increase, MacLennan believes more officers are needed on the road to nab intoxicated drivers. 

"The drugs have always been there. People have always been under the influence of them," he says. "Being able to get the officers and get them out there and get them stopped is a different story." 

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Medford police Sgt. Don Lane, one of the city police department's 10 certified drug recognition experts, drives his patrol car through downtown Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch