A growing percentage of arrests statewide for driving under the influence
are related to prescription and illicit drugs, not alcohol, authorities say.
Overall, DUI arrests are down, but authorities attribute the surge in DUI
drug arrests to a combination of better enforcement and the continuing fallout
from the prescription-drug epidemic.
Arizona has nearly 500 officers trained to recognize the symptoms of drug impairment, compared with only a few two decades ago. “I think the availability of prescription drugs in great quantities has created this,” said Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “This has created a prescription-drug epidemic.”
He said prescription painkillers and synthetic drugs such as “Spice” are common culprits.
Gilbert police Sgt. Jim Lahti, who supervises the night traffic squad, said he remembers meeting two officers who were the only drug-recognition officers in the state 22 years ago when he was police recruit. Officers would suspect someone was impaired by a substance other than alcohol, but were unable to pinpoint it because of a lack of training, he said. “We have officers that are better trained now in recognizing drug impairment,” Lahti said. “The other factor is that there are now more people driving who are impaired by drugs.”
While the number of DUI arrests dropped more than 13 percent in 2012 from 2011, the number of DUI drug arrests increased 12 percent, according to Governor’s Office of Highway Safety statistics. Even more dramatic is the increase in drug-related DUI arrests over a longer period, with the number rising 18-fold from 2003 to 2012. The trend was spotlighted during the holiday season by the annual East Valley DUI Task Force.
Mesa officers working with other agencies throughout the region made 540 DUI arrests from Nov. 21 to New Year’s Day. Of those arrests, 344, or 63%, were for drug DUIs. Other participating agencies made fewer drug arrests, but nearly one out of three arrests was drug-related.
The 2012 East Valley Task Force figures further confirm a trend noted in Mesa during the 2011 calendar year, when DUI drug arrests outpaced alcohol arrests for the first time. Lahti points out that although alcohol has been legal for years, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for anyone to drive impaired on any drug, including medical marijuana.
Remember--impaired driving means impairment from ALL sources: Alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription drugs, it makes no difference under Arizona law. Just like driving drunk, driving while on drugs can also cause catastrophic auto accidents in Arizona. It's a trend that needs to be stopped as soon as possible.
Be informed, and be safe.