Drug recognition training is urged

In this file photo, Santa Fe Police Capt. Anthony Tapia holds a blood test kit that can be used to help determine marijuana use. The officer would administer the test, but the blood would be drawn by a nurse, physician or someone qualified to draw blood. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed Tuesday that New Mexico will need more officers trained as drug recognition experts next year to help combat impaired driving once marijuana sales are legal.

State Police Maj. Troy Weisler, an acting deputy Cabinet secretary for public safety, told lawmakers that just 83 law enforcement officers in New Mexico are certified as drug recognition experts, partly due to a lack of demand.

It takes three weeks to go through the training, he said, and there's a “failure rate.”

“It's something of an intimidating process,” Weisler said.

Consequently, some parts of the state don't have any officers trained as drug recognition experts, legislators were told Tuesday.

The numbers surfaced as members of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee dedicated much of their afternoon to New Mexico's preparation to carry out a new law legalizing cannabis for adults.

Retail sales will begin by April 1. Growing cannabis at home for recreational use became legal last month.

The work of drug recognition experts is expected to take on extra importance because there's no standard breath test or assumed impairment level for cannabis, in contrast to alcohol. Officers certified as experts can help distinguish whether a person is truly impaired by cannabis.

Search warrants to conduct blood tests are permitted in felony cases, but there's debate over how well the results detect actual impairment.

Nevertheless, to prosecute impaired driving cases, officers could cite erratic driving, admission of use or other evidence.

Kim Chavez Cook, who manages appellate attorneys in the Law Offices of the Public Defender, agreed that New Mexico will need more officers trained as drug recognition experts.

“Cannabis affects every individual very differently,” Chavez Cook told lawmakers. “There's going to need to be an individualized assessment in every case.”

But she also said many of the people accused of drugged driving already have alcohol in their system, clearing the way for prosecution that way.

Eighth Judicial District Attorney Marcus Montoya said the northwestern New Mexico district doesn't have any officers trained as drug recognition experts.

Lawmakers heard about other potential law enforcement challenges as well.

The debate touched on questions about the Regulation and Licensing Department's authority to seek a temporary restraining order for businesses that flout the law, the odor of cannabis plants or smoke in neighborhoods, and the circumstances under which officers could search a home if someone is suspected of growing more plants than allowed.

Some of the questions might be addressed in legislation proposed in the 30-day session that will begin in January. Others might take more time to sort out.

Earlier this year, lawmakers authorized about $750,000 to cover the cost of “drug recognition field expert certification” for law enforcement officers and to develop or purchase roadside impairment tests for cannabis.

There's hope that a saliva test might soon aid in the detection of marijuana impairment. Rep. Bill Rehm, an Albuquerque Republican and retired sheriff's captain, said Tuesday that lawmakers will have to take some action soon.

“They're difficult cases to prosecute,” he said. “We've got to address the drugged driving issue in this next session.”

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