A recent rise in the number of arrests for drug-related DUIs is related to the misuse of prescription drugs, officials say.
According to the Governors Office of Highway Safety, DUI drug arrests increased 12 percent from the 2011 to 2012 year and this may be due to the diligence of the Drug Recognition Experts program in Arizona.
The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety also reports that these arrests have been steadily increasing over the past 10 years, raising nearly 18 times the amount of what it was in 2003.
The 2012 East Valley Holiday DUI Task Force shows that the Mesa Police Department made the most DUI related arrests from Nov. 21, 2012 to Jan. 1, 2013.
Mesa had 540 DUI arrests during this time, 340 of them being drug related. The total number of DUI arrests throughout the Valley was 1,679, with 527 drug-related.
Sgt. Anthony Landato of the Mesa Police Department said Mesa is leading the way in the number of arrests because all of their motor officers are DRE – or Drug Recognition Expert – certified.
The DRE program, which trains and certifies law enforcement personnel to recognize when a driver is drug impaired.
More than 500 officers throughout the Valley have been trained in the rigorous program, which is described on the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety in three phases.
Phase one consists of a two-day (16 hour) “preschool,” according to the program’s website. Students are taught the definition of the term “drug” as it is used in the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program, and become familiar with the techniques of the drug evaluation.
Phase two consists of a seven-day (56 hour) classroom program where students receive instruction in the techniques of the drug evaluation examination as well as in physiology, the effects of drugs and legal considerations.
A comprehensive written examination is then given to the officers in the program before they can continue on to phase three.
Phase three is their field certification training, which is conducted at periodic intervals for the next 60 to 90 days, according to the website.
During this time, the officers, under the direction of certified instructors, evaluate subjects suspected of being impaired by drugs other than alcohol.
Finally, after the students have participated and documented the results of at least 12 drug evaluations and have completed a comprehensive examination, the officer is certified as a Drug Recognition Expert.
Albert Gutier, the program’s director and Governor’s Highway Safety Representative, said that 23 other states have come to Arizona to go through this DRE training, but few match it.
“We have the best drug recognition program in the country,” he said.
Gutier believes that the increase is due to an “over-prescription of prescription drugs.”
Gutier said he felt physicians prescribe these drugs in a quantity that allows for abuse.
“A doctor says (after a surgery), ‘Hey, take this pill for a few days until you feel better and incase you have any pain,’” Gutier said. “Well they give you 20, or whatever it is, and now you have 12 pills. …”
“If I have major surgery, two days afterwards, I say, ‘Hell, I’m done,’ and make sure that the pills are properly disposed of,” he added.
The problem, according to Gutier, is that most people don’t dispose of the remaining pills they are given but rather store them for later abuse, sell them, or they are stolen.
Carrick Cook, a spokesman with the Department of Public Safety said that public awareness and educating people about the abuse of these drugs is also necessary.
“A lot of it boils down to, are people educated?” Cook said. “Are people paying attention to what they’re being told by their physicians or are they reading their prescriptions correctly?
“Every prescription that impairs your ability to drive, for the most part, says do not operate heavy machinery,” he continued.
Landato explained that there is only so much that police officials can do in terms of combating the issue.
More and more officers are being trained in the Valley to recognize a drug-impaired driver in order to make the arrests, but it is important for people to be aware of the rise in this crime.
“We can’t really control when a person decides to get behind the wheel of a car,” Landato said. “I would say the way we combat it is just in our approach to crime in general.”
He continued, “Beyond that, we are getting them off the street and charged with that crime.”