When Mesa police officials first heard in the late 1980s about a new technique being developed to spot drivers on drugs, they weren’t entirely sold on the idea.
Still, they allowed a couple of officers to become certified drug recognition experts — and they allowed traffic Sgt. Steve Toland to become one of a handful of recognition instructors in the nation.
Over the next few years, Toland traveled to 13 states, teaching other officers how to tell if a driver was drunk or high on methamphetamine, prescription drugs, marijuana or a multitude of other drugs.
As word got out that drug labs were verifying the officers’ opinions, the program exploded in popularity.
"The program eventually evolved into the county attorney’s office wanting DREs at every bad accident or every fatal accident," Toland said.
This Fourth of July weekend — 15 years later — there will be more than 11,000 certified officers looking for impaired drivers across the nation.
In fact, Arizona has the second highest number of drug recognition experts in the western United States with 372.
California has the highest, with 1,670 drug recognition experts, while Washington has 156 and Oregon 190.
For his work, Toland, now a commander with the department, received an Emeritus Award during a recent national conference of certified officers.
Toland said he is proud of his award, but prouder still of those officers whose hard work has gained Mesa a stellar reputation among drug recognition experts across the nation.
Mesa’s 28 certified officers evaluated 844 drivers last year and successfully determined what drug or drugs they were on in 92 percent of the cases, said Mesa officer Tim Lafferty, certification coordinator for the department.
Lafferty said anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of his DUI arrests are drug-related.
"People don’t think using drugs and driving is driving under the influence, but you can get into just as much trouble as someone who drinks and drives," Lafferty said.
Not only do drug-impaired drivers face the same penalties as drunken drivers, but they are just as deadly.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 38 percent of fatal crashes involve drunken drivers and between 11 percent and 22 percent involve drugs and/or alcohol.
Drug recognition experts determine if a person is on drugs using a 12-step process, Lafferty said. Officers ask questions, take vital signs, conduct field sobriety tests and look for several physical factors — including the size of a person’s pupils — to make their determination.