Beyond the Buzz: Cops go back to school to keep high drivers off the road |

Beyond the Buzz: Cops go back to school to keep high drivers off the road

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Colorado’s cannabis industry continues to evolve, but the laws related to driving high remain cut and dry.

“Drive High, Get a DUI” was the educational message state officials launched soon after recreational marijuana consumption was legalized in November 2012.

Local police also tried to get the message out.

“You can’t smoke and drive and be impaired just like you can’t drink and drive and be impaired,” said Steamboat Springs Police Officer John McCartin, who developed his niche for identifying impaired drivers soon after he became a Steamboat cop in 2004.

“I started to realize Steamboat has a problem with this, and I got interested in it, and I got really good at picking out impaired drivers,” McCartin said.

Since 2010, he has been a drug recognition expert. To get that certification, McCartin attended an intense two-week class.

As part of the class, the officers got to practice their impairment identification skills on inmates freshly booked into the Denver Jail.

“Wet lab” training courses are nothing new and have allowed police to practice identifying drunk drivers in a controlled environment with volunteers who are dosed with alcohol.

The proliferation of recreational cannabis gave rise to “green labs,” where the volunteers get high.

“It’s cutting edge,” McCartin said. “They never have done this before.”

Police rely on more than just a single test to arrest someone for DUI.

“It’s the totality of everything,” McCartin said. “We just look at impairment as any kind of impairment. There is a ton of stuff even before we get to the roadsides.”

On the DUI form used by Steamboat police, there are a variety of boxes for the officer to check.

Was the driver’s reaction to police car lights normal, slow or erratic?

Is their face flush or pale?

Are the driver’s clothes orderly, disorderly or soiled?

There is also a place for the officers to check off unusual actions and attitudes. Those options include belching, profane, combative, vomiting, hilarious, sleeping, crying and polite.

Different drugs result in different behaviors, and the second page of the DUI form goes over the six standard tests Steamboat police will administer during roadsides.

The “horizontal gaze” test helps officers identify the eye movements that occur when someone has been drinking alcohol.

“It’s an involuntary reaction to alcohol,” McCartin said.

The “walk and turn” test turns any line on the road into an obstacle course for an impaired driver. That and the “one-leg stand” test are both meant to gauge a driver’s ability to multitask.

“Marijuana will significantly impair your ability to divide your attention,” McCartin said. “It might slow you down a lot. It might make you forget things.”

Someone who is high might also have trouble with the Rhomberg test, where the driver tilts their head back, closes their eyes and utilizes their internal clock.

“The big thing we look for on the Rhomberg is what do they think 30 seconds was,” McCartin said. “Someone that’s on meth might stop in five seconds.”

The alphabet and number tests are self explanatory, with the drivers starting and ending at certain points. And, no, McCartin said Steamboat police are not taught to make people recite the alphabet backwards.

Steamboat police will decide whether to make an arrest based of the roadside maneuvers, but a blood test reveals exactly what is in a person’s body at the time.

“The blood test is the gold standard for testing people,” McCartin said.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland.

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