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N.M. police agencies prepare for cannabis-impaired drivers

As recreational marijuana is set to become legal on Friday, police officials are reminding drivers to “be responsible, plan ahead”


By Robert Nott
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. —Think wisely if you plan to purchase and use cannabis products after sales become legal Friday, law enforcement officials advise. In particular, they warn cannabis consumers — especially casual users and first-timers — not to get behind the wheel of a car while impaired.

“Be responsible, plan ahead,” said Capt. Micah Doering, a drug recognition expert and commander of the Farmington District for New Mexico State Police. Whether smoking, eating, drinking or vaping cannabis products, he said, a “very small amount will likely impair” people who don’t generally use it.

State police and local law enforcement agencies will be on the lookout this weekend for unsafe drivers as retailers open their doors to adults 21 and over.

Still, Doering said his agency is not expecting an overnight surge of impaired drivers.

“We don’t anticipate a need for a whole lot of patrols,” he said of the opening weekend. “We are going to continue as we have. Impaired driving has always been a concern here in the state of New Mexico. We continue to prioritize that as one of the lead safety issues on our highways.”

Santa Fe police Chief Paul Joye also said he doesn’t anticipate a sudden jump in the number of patrols or sobriety checkpoints.

The New Mexico Department of Public Safety received funding in 2021 to train state police officers how to determine if a driver is impaired by drugs or alcohol through the Drug Recognition Expert certification program.

But Doering said in an interview last year law enforcement officers long have been trained to detect drug impairment. Even under the new law, he said at the time, there is “no difference between medical cannabis, legal recreational cannabis or illegal cannabis” when it comes to how a driver performs on field sobriety tests.

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Doering said data compiled in the Farmington area shows 3 percent to 5 percent of all DWI arrests are related to drug use, while the rest involve alcohol.

Data from other states that have legalized recreational cannabis shows some differences in the number of DWI arrests before and after legalization.

Colorado legalized recreational cannabis use in 2012 and approved retail sales in 2014. A report issued in 2018 by the Colorado Department of Transportation said the state saw an increase in cannabis-related traffic crashes and fatalities, with more than more than 13 percent of those involved in fatal crashes testing positive for the drug. A report in 2020 found a similar rate of drivers charged with DWI testing positive for cannabis. There were 26,255 DWI cases in 2018, the report said, and about 1 in 8 involved a person with a positive cannabis test.

Law enforcement officials in New Mexico also note public use of cannabis products remains illegal.

While the state has created rules that would allow for cannabis consumption lounges, no such businesses are expected to open this weekend.

Joye and Doering said using cannabis in public could lead to charges, but their agencies intend to first educate offenders.

“When we meet people like this, it can be as simple as a discussion,” Doering said. “Something like, ‘Hey, were you aware this is not allowed under the law? You need to be in your residence or the residence of someone else; please don’t do this in public.’ ”

Noting the Santa Fe City Council voted several years ago to make possession of an ounce or less of cannabis and paraphernalia a civil infraction punishable by a fine of no more than $25, Joye said the city police force “took the stance it was our lowest priority of enforcement.”

Joye said his agency “expects everyone [who uses cannabis] to be responsible adults.”

(c)2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)