Nev. Law Enforcement Fears Increased DUIs Under Recreational Pot

May 23, 2017

Credit Martin Alonso/Creative Commons

Nevadans will soon be able to purchase recreational marijuana legally in Nevada. This poses a dramatic shift in the relationship between cannabis and law enforcement. For decades, simply possessing the drug was a felony across the Silver State. But with recent changes, how will police enforce the laws now?

Dan Gordon is a 10-year veteran of the Nevada Highway Patrol. It’s a bright sunny, morning in Reno, and Trooper Gordon is on the lookout for people driving under the influence.

Trooper Dan Gordon poses next to his vehicle at Nevada Highway Patrol Northern Command in Reno.
Credit Paul Boger

“This is a 24-hour state, so it’s not uncommon for us to get a DUI arrest or a crash at any point of the day, at any time of the week, any day of the week, any time of the month, any time of the year,” says Gordon. “I mean, they’re everywhere and anywhere at any time.”

Within moments a call comes in on the radio that a private citizen has spotted somebody possibly driving under the influence.

After a brief drive, Gordon catches up to his fellow troopers who have already pulled the suspect over. It doesn't take long to realize the driver is obviously impaired.

“He’s having a tough time standing, just doing basic stuff that a sober person can do,” Gordon says.

Gordon says sights like this are becoming all too common, especially in other states like Colorado. 

“E.R. visits are skyrocketing. Homelessness between the ages of 18 and 25 are skyrocketing. There are just so many bad points to it and I hope we don’t see that.

According to the website factcheck.org, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, states like Colorado saw a 154 percent increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities in the years immediately after the legalization of medical. And in 2014 alone, the year recreational marijuana became legal, cannabis-related traffic fatalities spiked to nearly a fifth of all traffic deaths.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas)

To help prevent the increase in pot-related DUIs, Nevada lawmakers have passed a measure that sets specific limits on how much THC – the active ingredient in pot – can be in a person's blood when operating a motor vehicle. Speaking to Nevada Newsmakers, Assemblyman Steve Yeager, a Democrat from Las Vegas, says the measure will make the process fairer for everyone involved.

“A urine test will tell you if someone has ingested marijuana in the past, but it does not tell you if they were actually impaired at the time testing is done, whereas blood can test for active THC, which is psychoactive,” Yeager says. "So, when it comes to the marijuana prosecutions, the urine tests are just unreliable in proving impairment.”

But DUIs are not the only problem facing states that have passed recreational laws. For instance, Colorado has seen an uptick in the number of people admitted to the emergency room for cannabis-related maladies. Factcheck.org actually found pot-related E.R. visits doubled between 2013 and 2014.

The biggest culprit appears to be edible products. That's why lawmakers are working on a bill that would limit how much THC can be in any single package. Independent Senator Patricia Farley of Las Vegas introduced the measure.

Senator Patricia Farley (D-Las Vegas) presenting SB344 to lawmakers.
Credit Paul Boger

“We’ll be able to more easily monitor their intake by serving sizes and avoid eating too much,” says Farley. “We do want to set a standard in Nevada that leads the rest of the nation.”

That same bill also prohibits the production and sale of any item that could be marketed toward children. It's one of several weed-related bills making their way through the legislature right now. They deal with everything from business regulations and taxes to easing the punishments for marijuana use. However, very few deal with enforcement and Trooper Gordon says time will be the real test.

“You know, in the next legislation that meets in 2019, there’ll be some issues they need to change or tweak or do something. So, it’s going to be one of these 'time will tell' type of industries, and that’s kind of what we’re expecting.”

While Nevada's relationship with cannabis has changed, the threat of federal enforcement continues to loom, placing officers like Trooper Gordon in a difficult position.