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Montana law enforcement, scientists prepare for legalized marijuana

state crime lab
state crime lab pot
Posted at 7:47 PM, Aug 30, 2021

MISSOULA, Mont. — Montana already struggles with our rate of drunk driving, and in a few months, the state’s new recreational marijuana law comes into play.

It will no doubt put more impaired drivers out on the roads. How does the Montana Highway patrol feel about it, and what about the state crime lab whose scientists will likely see a bigger caseload? We found out that they’re already gearing up.

High tech machines at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula screen blood for a specific drug classification, pinpoint what that drug is, such as meth or opioids or marijuana. Another machine then measures the level of the drug in a blood sample.

state crime lab

Machines named Eliza or a gas chromatogram mass spectrometer are big words, but they are crucial testing tools used all the time in impaired driving cases.

“The toxicology section receives about 5,400 cases a year, and I would say 4,000 of them are DUI cases,” explained State Crime Lab interim director Travis Spinder.

The crime lab experienced a drop-off in DUI testing during the COVID-19 lockdown, but once businesses reopened, the caseload increased. And often, it’s a drugs and alcohol situation when someone is pulled over.

state crime lab

"When you’re talking DUI, it could be from ethanol or drugs. And we’ll immediately run the blood alcohol on it, the ethanol on it. We’ve set a mark at point one. So anything point-one or below automatically triggers a drug test as well,” Spinder said.

Recreational marijuana will be legal for sale in Montana beginning in January. With alcohol, you are considered impaired with a bac of .08, but it's different for marijuana.

“There is a per se for marijuana as well, and it’s five. Nanograms per milliliter. So that’s the amount that you can have before you’re legally over.”

The crime lab in Missoula reports marijuana, meth, and alcohol are the things most often popping up on DUI drug tests.

state crime lab pot

The lab currently has eight full-time toxicologists but asked the Montana Legislature for four more over the course of the next two fiscal years in the perpetration of anticipated demand for testing.

Washington State legalized marijuana in 2015, so we contacted the Washington State Patrol to find out what they’ve seen out on the roads when it comes to marijuana.

While Washington State doesn’t differentiate between the kinds of drugs found in an impaired driving case MTN News was told that anecdotally, there was a big increase in impaired driving once recreational marijuana became legal.

Montana Highway Patrol spokesman Sergeant Jay Nelson also says they anticipate having more impaired driving arrests once marijuana becomes legal.

However, troopers are already trained to identify what might be impairing a driver, be it alcohol, drugs -- legal and illegal -- or anything else that might cause someone to get pulled over.

“We have what we call the ARIDE training which is the Advanced Roadside Impairment Detection. And really, what that is looking at is beyond the basic maneuvers that we see for alcohol impairment. Now there’s different things we look at in impairment from different things from illegal or prescription drugs, we don’t want to forget about that. And so, we have all of our troopers across the state, -- most all of them are trained at that level. And then we’re increasing every year more drug recognition experts. So, these are troopers that have had even more training and really in the examination of individuals to determine if they’re intoxicated." - Montana Highway Patrol Sergeant Jay Nelson

However, this pans out. Law enforcement is ready to adjust to an ever-changing landscape out on the roads.

“We’re starting to see other drugs creep in. and those are things we have to prepare for. It's an epidemic that we all need to do our part to help cure.”

Public Service Announcements regarding marijuana use, explaining how edibles work and how this generation’s marijuana might differ from what some remember from years ago have been airing in the Spokane area.

Their tag line was ‘Drive High, Get a DUI”. It’s all part of an awareness campaign, no doubt coming to Montana in just a few months.

Jill Valley at KPAX first reported this story.