Southern Oregon leads state in boating under the influence
SHADY COVE — From Jason Denton’s position atop the Rogue River boat ramp at Shady Cove, the Jackson County sheriff’s marine deputy could tell one of the paddlers in an open raft clearly wasn’t sober.
Denton approached the man, who turned out to be a South Dakotan who wasn’t shy about admitting he was impaired and happy to declare that he hadn’t been drinking.
“This kid was laughing, ‘I’m not drunk. I’m stoned on good Oregon weed and it’s legal,’” Denton says.
When the tourist received his ticket for boating under the influence of intoxicants, he became the latest, but not the last, to learn that legal weed in Oregon isn’t a free pass to smoke on the water.
“It’s legal at home, but you still can’t operate a boat,” Denton says. “We get a lot of people who maybe aren’t specifically coming here to do that, but it’s on their agenda. It’s become more mainstream.”
There’s definitely more smoke on Southern Oregon rivers now that marijuana has joined beer, wine and other intoxicants for rafters and other boaters to imbibe during their adventures.
Marine deputies in Jackson and Klamath counties lead the state in writing tickets for boating under the influence of intoxicants this year, and marijuana impairment has been involved in 30 percent of those cases, according to the Oregon State Marine Board.
Since recreational use of marijuana became legal in Oregon in 2016, pot use among boaters and rafters on the Rogue River and other waterbodies has become almost as common as a cooler full of beer.
Devon Stephenson of Rapid Pleasure raft rentals in Shady Cove says many rafters don’t seem to think twice about sparking up on raft trips.
“I used to smell it a lot, but now it’s real pervasive, real blatant,” Stephenson says. “Everybody seems to think they can do it and get away with it because the cops can’t detect it.”
Under Oregon boating laws, boaters are allowed to drink alcohol if they otherwise are legal to drink, and they may also have open containers of alcohol on board. However, they are not allowed to be intoxicated while operating a boat — and that includes being one of several paddlers on a raft, according to the law.
Boaters follow the same standards as automobile drivers, with those exceeding a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level considered over the limit.
With marijuana, the rules are somewhat different.
While it is legal to have an open container of alcohol on a boat, it is illegal to smoke pot in public, and Oregon waterways are considered public.
There are no Breathalyzer tests for cannabis, so officers rely on field-sobriety tests to analyze whether pot-impairment levels rise to the level of BUII.
“If you fail a field-sobriety test, you fail,” Henry says. “Impairment is impairment, whether it’s for alcohol, marijuana, illegal drugs or prescription drugs.”
Marine Board enforcement statistics show Southern Oregon leads the state in boating while impaired.
Marine deputies across Oregon so far this year have logged 39 cases of boating under the influence of intoxicants, with 14 of those in Jackson County and 22 in Klamath County. That leaves just three other cases for the 30 other Oregon counties that have Marine Board-funded law enforcement.
“There are (deputies) who have those skills ... and they seem to be working in Jackson and Klamath counties,” Henry says.
In at least two Jackson County cases, deputies received over-the-telephone warrants to draw blood or urine from suspected marijuana-impaired boaters, Henry says.
Henry says he hopes within the next year to host statewide marine-deputy training for marijuana detection in a pot version of a “Wet Lab,” which is when police have someone drink alcohol and then test their abilities to detect impairment.
This “Green Lab” might be tough to pull off, because marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, but federal officials are warming to the idea of field officers becoming more adept at pot-use detection.
While national statistics show that people tend to have either marijuana or alcohol as their substance of choice, Oregon’s BUII cases that involved marijuana almost always have included alcohol too, Henry says.
Those convicted of BUII face fines and potential loss of their boater-certification cards needed to operate boats with motors greater than 10 horsepower.
The float-and-toke business plan for water recreation traces its roots to marijuana advocate Mike Boutin of Medford.
Boutin in 2016 launched Weed Country Adventures, which offered upper Rogue rafting trips sprinkled in with smoking sessions. For instance, Boutin packaged a smoke-and-float package in which licensed guides rowed participants down rapids such as Nugget Falls near Gold Hill, stopping on private lands so his clients could toke on pot he supplied, according to the company’s website.
But that business has been shuttered and Boutin, along with his wife, Tawni Boutin, were arrested May 18 in Jackson, Tennessee, after police found 15.5 pounds of marijuana as well as butane hash oil and $6,900 in a bus in which they were traveling, court records state.
The Boutins remain jailed in Tennessee awaiting trail on federal charges of marijuana possession and intent to distribute marijuana, court records show. Michael Boutin is due back in federal court Aug. 20, while Tawni Boutin has a Dec. 17 trial date, records show.
While Boutin was once the face of the local float-and-toke crowd that found ways to dance around pot and boating laws, the amateurs that officers like Denton see on the Rogue and nearby reservoirs usually don’t readily make the connection to safety concerns on their own.
“I ask them, ‘Would you drive a car now?’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, no way,’” Denton says. “That’s when they seem to understand.”