by Jim Walsh – Dec. 21, 2011 01:21 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com
East Valley DUI Task Force officers almost need to be chemists to keep up with the concoctions used by impaired drivers. Drug arrests are soaring while alohol arrests are declining.
The job of nabbing impaired drivers is becoming far more complicated, with drivers under the influence of not only alcohol but prescription and illegal drugs, said Mesa police Sgt. Dave Meicke, a supervisor of this year's crackdown.
He said drug arrests by one of the nation's longest and largest DUI task forces have increased from 13 percent in 2002 to 59 percent this year.
Meicke attributes the change to steady progress on education about the hazards of driving under the influence, more officers trained to recognize drug impairment and more people abusing prescription and illegal drugs.
Through Dec. 17, the task force had cited 1,004 drivers, with Christmas and New Year's Eve still ahead, said Mesa police Cmdr. Bill Peters.
He said about 2,000 citations are likely as about 700 officers from several agencies work together on saturation patrols to make a bigger impact. The task force works in a different city each night Wednesday through Saturday.
The cities include Mesa, Gilbert, Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler. The task force does not announce the rotation of cities. On a typical night, about 70 officers are working. More than 700 officers are participating.
Peters said police are seeing more designated drivers, proof that educational campaigns about drunk driving are changing behavior.
But as drunk driving drops, drug-impaired driving is increasing along with the variety of drugs.
That has changed the job of enforcing DUI statutes, with savvy chemists staying a step ahead of the law by altering their concoctions slightly to make them legal, Meicke said.
Increasingly, officers find themselves administering a series of tests that take 25-40 minutes, watching the pupils of drivers, monitoring their heart rates and looking for body tremors.
Some drivers believe that because they have a state marijuana card that they have a right to drive impaired, Meicke said. They readily tell officers they have been smoking marijuana and then are cited just as quickly.
One man told police he smokes “spice,” a synthetic form of marijuana, three times a day. His impairment symptoms were topped by another driver, however, who was high on “glass cleaner,” billed as synthetic cocaine.
“He was bizarre. His ability to reason and be in touch with reality was beyond marijuana or even cocaine,” Meicke said. “I would not have trusted the guy with a pencil, much less a vehicle.”