Traffic officers from the East Valley and around Arizona gathered at the state Capitol several weeks ago to kick off the state’s annual effort to curb drunk drivers over the holiday period.

A 15-year-old underaged driver smokes marijuana and plows into a motorcyclist, who suffers third-degree burns as his bike catches on fire and second-degree burns as he skids on the pavement.

Mesa police cite this Aug. 4, 2015, collision at Broadway Road and Stapley Drive – in which the now-36-year-old motorcyclist somehow survived – as a graphic example that illustrates the changing dynamics of driving-under-the-influence cases.

In a deadly trend in the East Valley – as well as throughout Arizona and the nation – more DUI cases are showing a combination of alcohol with potent drugs, including powerful painkillers and even heroin.

Phoenix and East Valley officers say they are seeing more drug cases, while impairment from alcohol remains a deadly, chronic problem.

Phoenix Police Lt. David Moore, supervisor of the vehicular crimes unit, said even the most non-threatening events – such as the recent Ignite Hope Walk at Phoenix Children’s Hospital – can suddenly get turned into a dangerous situation by an impaired driver.

He said a woman nearly hit a security guard at the Phoenix Children’s event and eventually struck a barricade.

Police did not smell alcohol but a drug recognition officer examined the driver and found evidence that she had been using a narcotic painkiller, which establishes probable cause for a blood test. A search of the woman’s car found six bottles of pills and a syringe, Moore said.

“I would like to believe most people are not going out impaired,” he said.

He said many people do not realize how impaired they are by their medication or addicted to various drugs that were initially prescribed legally. “They don’t realize they are very impaired and putting other people at risk.”

Decades of crackdowns and education campaigns have made an impact on drinking and driving, with the public tolerating it far less and the use of designated drivers and ride-sharing services increasing.

But police say the number of drug-related cases continues to rise, demonstrating a need for more education on the growing “drugged driving” problem.

“They have a veritable pharmacy in their systems,” said Chandler police officer Dan McQuillan, mentioning marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, Xanax and Soma as some of the drugs found in driver’s systems.

“When you get out on the street, the people I work for are at risk,” he said. “That’s when I care.”

Less public awareness

McQuillan and Mesa police officer Jim McDowell – a certified drug recognition expert, or DRE, and instructor – agreed that the drugged driving problem seems most prevalent during daytime hours.

McQuillan said he had one month when only two or three of his arrests involved alcohol.

McDowell estimated 90 percent of his DUI arrests during the day are for drugs, while it would be more like 65 percent when the night shift is included.

McDowell, who arrested the 15-year-old in the Mesa accident, said the teenager knew he had done something wrong, “but it was not a complete understanding. He didn’t understand the concept of being impaired.”

McQuillan said the DUI drug cases sometimes differ from the stereotypical case of a drunken motorist driving home from a bar.

“A lot of people who take pain medications, they are just trying to get through their day,” McQuillan said. “They build up a tolerance if they have been on the drug for a while. That’s when the addiction kicks in.”

Police say there seems to be less public awareness of the dangers of driving while under the influence of drugs, rather than alcohol, and they wish that people would simply read the warning labels attached to their prescription bottles and act more responsibly.

While the number of DUI arrests might not be changing dramatically, the dynamics are much different from 25 years ago, when Mesa Police Sgt. Sean Kelly started his career and the vast majority of DUI arrests were attributed to alcohol.

“What’s way up is the number of designated drivers,” Kelly said.

At the annual Labor Day weekend checkpoint on Power Road, aimed at catching impaired drivers heading home from Saguaro Lake, “I will stop six cars in a row and they are all designated drivers,” he said.

But the move toward drivers under the influence of marijuana, pain-killers and opiates is also unmistakable, with Kelly estimating that 70 percent of his cases are drug-related and 30 percent alcohol-related.

“We are seeing a resurgence of DUIs with opiates,” Kelly said, which can include powerful prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Percocet.

Kelly said many suspects tell police how they have suffered a major injury or undergone a major surgery. Some of these people develop a dependency issue and turn to street drugs such as heroin, an illegal opiate, when their prescriptions run out. Heroin also can be cheaper than prescription opiates.

“In many cases, it starts with pain management. There is an addiction element to using these drugs,” Kelly said. “It can eventually manifest itself in illegal drugs such as heroin.”

Drug impairment soaring

Although police are sympathetic to such cases, they still have to cite drivers who are impaired, whether the substance is alcohol or heroin, he said.

“It’s our job to prevent tragedy,” Kelly said.

McQuillan said his compassion for such drivers is tempered by memories of informing family members that a drunk driver had just killed a loved one.

Chandler police lost longtime Motor Officer David Payne in such a collision during the 2014 East Valley Halloween task force, when an impaired driver ran into Payne’s motorcycle from behind.

Across the East Valley, Arizona and the nation, opiate abuse has reached epidemic proportions.

The Arizona Department of Health Service estimates that 564 people in Arizona have died from heroin overdoses this year.

Arizona law enforcement officers and deputies statewide made 5,028 DUI arrests in 2016 and 4,948 so far this year through Nov. 28, with arrest figures from ongoing holiday crackdown not yet available, according to Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

Overall, the state is approaching 25,000 DUI arrests this year, director Alberto Gutier said.

“There’s no question that impairment by drugs has grown tremendously over the last 10 years,” Gutier said. “It’s a major problem, even though we have hundreds of drug recognition officers.”  

With a fully accredited forensic lab and a team of 11 traffic officers trained as DREs, Mesa appears better equipped than many agencies to handle the drug cases – which either have partial labs or no labs and rely on busy Arizona Department of Public Safety labs.

All of Mesa’s traffic officers are drug recognition experts, who perform tests in the field to recognize the symptoms of drug impairment. One of these tests involves tracking eye movements.

Most DUIs start with a traffic stop where the officer determines the driver’s behavior is symptomatic of an impaired driver, such as weaving in a lane, driving too slow or even passing out at a traffic light.

The officer’s observations serve as probable cause for a traffic stop and the results of a DRE exam serve as probable cause for a blood test.

Police in Maricopa County can obtain an electronic search warrant for a blood test in about 10 minutes, speeding up the process, said Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

Gutier said Arizona serves as a national example of how to address DUI drugs, with other states sending officers to Arizona for training.  

He said 400 to 500 Arizona officers are DREs, helping them spot drug-impaired drivers who previously went undetected because of a lack of alcohol recorded in breath tests.

Chris Murphy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s regional director for California and Arizona, praised Arizona’s commitment to combatting DUI drugs.

He noted that while Arizona is the 16th largest state in population, it has the third most DRE-trained officers.

“There is no state more committed to impaired driving than Arizona,” Murphy said.

Testing is an issue

For the first time in 2015, more drivers nationwide who were involved in fatal collisions tested positive for drugs, 43 percent, than for alcohol, Murphy said.

While alcohol levels are well-calibrated to equate with impaired driving, drug levels are much murkier when determining impairment, according to Murphy and Jim Hedlund, a former NHTSA official considered a top national expert on the issue.

“This thing is so under-recognized and under-enforced,” Murphy said. “We are right now with drugs where we were with alcohol in the 1950s.”

The ability of police to crack down on DUI drugs varies from one city to another based upon whether they have a lab of their own drugs.

Chandler has a partial lab that can analyze blood for alcohol but not drugs, Gilbert has a contract with Mesa’s lab and Tempe does not have a lab.

Hedlund, who has studied the drugged driving problem for the national Governors Highway Safety Association, said that while alcohol has been scientifically correlated with impairment for 50 years, the correlation with drugs is far less exact.

“Everyone tries to put it in an alcohol framework and it doesn’t work very well,” he said, with different drugs breaking down into the system at different rates.  He said scientists understand that there are certain symptoms of impairment with different types of drugs.

“The impairment varies substantially from person to person,” Hedlund said.

He said the studies so far confirm that drug use among drivers involved in fatal collisions is going up and that alcohol use is going down, even though alcohol is still a major and persistent threat to public safety.

But Hedlund cautioned that he can only say that there is a higher presence of drugs in the systems of such drivers.

He said he does not have enough information to conclude that these drivers were impaired at the time of the fatal collision and more studies are required.

“The fact that drugs are going up is more of a societal indication,” Hedlund said.

Amanda Jacinto, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said drug cases rely on another aspect of the Arizona DUI law that many people overlook.

While drivers are presumed under the influence of alcohol at a .08 percent blood alcohol reading, the law also specifies that it illegal to drive if impaired to the slightest degree, she said.

A positive drug test, when combined with an officer’s observations of driving behavior and a DRE exam, all help to establish that a driver is impaired.

“The thing that would help us is good roadside testing for drugs,” Hedlund said. “That would really help officers a lot. I think it’s the next big thing” in DUI enforcement.

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