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Sniffing out stoned drivers in an age of public pot

WATCH: Sniffing out stoned drivers in an age of public pot

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - From the moment Colorado State Patrol Corporal Michelle Archer gets on the road, she is watching.

Watching for drivers who, if impaired, are like ballistic missiles on the road: potentially deadly to themselves and others.

Drivers who speed up, slow down, and drift out of their lane are all targets on her nightly reconnaissance missions.  Those infractions are probable cause to pull over anyone – including those who drive under the influence of marijuana. From there, Cpl. Archer looks for signs of impairment: dilated eyes, slurred speech, and whether a person can follow cognitive commands.

See what troopers look for below:



According to Colorado State Patrol, 155 drivers have been cited for marijuana use only impairment in the first three months of 2017; that’s a 33% decrease from the same time period in 2016 when there were 232 citations.

Still, the numbers show an increase in marijuana-involved fatalities, correlated with the drug’s legalization.

CSP is responding to the greater accessibility of marijuana.  The agency is in its second year of a pilot program that is testing roadside marijuana detection devices for their usability and accuracy.  CSP declined to comment on which devices were still in the running for eventual use; however, the program could give officers another tool to confirm their suspicions of impairment.

But, it’s not a given that empirical evidence would be admissible in a court of law.

As it stands, if a driver is pulled over for drunken driving, and consents to a breathalyzer test, that test result doesn’t always make it to trial.

“There even been court cases where, for whatever reason, the blood test gets kicked out or the breath test gets kicked out, or the breath test gets kicked out,” said Cpl. Archer.

It’s her belief that a roadside breathalyzer could be another tool for officers, but it will ultimately come back to observing – and pulling over -- erratic drivers.

For that reason, officers have gotten proficient at articulating what behaviors they observe.

As Colorado and other states go through the growing pains of adjudicating legalized marijuana, case law will become clear over time – specifically, how and if roadside readings will become admissible evidence.

“Can we use it in court, not just for probable cause?  Can we use that for evidence of impairment?” said Jenn Knudsen, the Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor with the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council.

From a prosecutor’s standpoint, Colorado’s five nanogram THC limit is arbitrary.

“There really is no legal limit in Colorado from my perspective.  The legal limit is the amount that makes a person affected to the slightest degree,” said Knudsen, “If they are impaired to the slightest degree, it is illegal for that person to drive.”

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