AUGUSTA — Maine State Police want more resources to train officers and to fight the flow of black market marijuana in Maine, but are not pushing for a cannabis blood-level threshold to help prove suspected impaired driving.

As lawmakers continue working on the complexities of legalizing marijuana in Maine, state police officials said Friday they need more money to train officers on cannabis issues and a full-time interdiction team to stop cross-border drug smuggling. However, state police are not pushing for major changes to Maine’s existing “operating under the influence” law in the wake of marijuana legalization earlier this year, nor are they advocating for setting a legal limit for cannabis similar to the 0.08 percent blood alcohol content level used to prosecute drunk drivers.

Instead, police would continue to rely on field observations of suspected impaired drivers backed up by simple urine tests showing drugs in a person’s system.

“When we’re talking about the difference between alcohol impairment and drug impairment … it’s one law: it is operating under the influence,” said Scot Mattox, traffic safety resource prosecutor with the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. “And the basis of that influence is irrelevant as far as the law is concerned, whether you’re impaired because you’re drinking alcohol, whether you’re impaired because you are taking prescription medications or whether you’re impaired because you’re smoking marijuana. The difference is none.”

Impaired driving long has been among the top concerns raised by law enforcement in Maine and the other states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana and cannabis products. Part of the challenge officers face is the lack of a simple, roadside test for marijuana like the Breathalyzer tests used for alcohol. Also, the psychoactive component of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is metabolized differently in the body than alcohol so there is not a clear consensus among experts about what level of THC would constitute impairment.

While early legalization states such as Washington and Colorado have set a blood level limit of 5 nanograms of active THC for prosecuting impaired driving, others have steered clear of setting chemical standards because of that lack of consensus. Last year, AAA urged states not to set “arbitrary legal limits” on THC but, rather, base marijuana impairment charges on a two-pronged system of an officer’s field observations along with a subsequent chemical test showing the presence of THC in the suspect’s body.

An executive committee of Maine public safety personnel that reviewed the issue came to the same conclusions.

“Instead of focusing on trying to figure out a nanogram level … and changes to the OUI law, we thought that resources would be better spent on, first of all, public education,” Maddox told members of the Legislature’s Special Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation. “The committee felt that there is a potential danger for marijuana use and driving, and that the public perception is not the same as it is for alcohol and driving. We also recommend more law enforcement training for drug impairment and driving.”

ENFORCEMENT EFFORTS

Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, told lawmakers that only 91 of the roughly 2,500 officers in Maine have gone through the two-week “drug recognition expert” training, while 400 to 500 have gone through the shorter Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement program. The Department of Public Safety has increased the number of Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement sessions at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, but Williams said the state needs more DRE-trained officers.

Williams said the state police also could use a full-time dedicated drug interdiction team to help stop black market marijuana leaving and entering Maine, as well heroin and other drugs.

“There still is a huge black market for marijuana even when you legalize it,” Williams said, noting recent large marijuana busts in Colorado, where marijuana has been legal since 2014. Williams said when his interdiction officers are deployed, they almost always find heroin, fentanyl and other drugs coming across the state border. “We already know we have the opiate issue, but there are always going to be the illegal element making money off of something illegal. Marijuana is no different.”

But Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff and member of the Portland Police Department, pressed Maddox on the lack of a blood standard for THC, given the significant concern of the committee and general public about the issue. Dion, who supported last year’s legalization campaign, suggested that without blood tests police will be more reliant on the field sobriety tests for proving someone is impaired from marijuana.

“If you blow a .15 on the (alcohol) breath test, it kind of validates the officer’s conclusion that you are impaired and there is a lot of weight placed on that breath test,” Dion said. “If someone is arrested for cannabis impairment, all we have is a confirmation that cannabis is present and it doesn’t necessarily validate the observations of the officer.”

The current version of the legislation being developed by the special committee does not address the issue of a THC blood limit or seek major changes to Maine’s OUI laws. A bill considered during the 2016 Legislature that sought to set a blood limit for THC died after it was passed by the Senate but rejected by the House. That bill was supported by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and the Maine Sheriffs’ Association.

Retail marijuana sales are expected to begin in Maine next year, although cannabis has been legal for adult personal use in the state since January.

Committee members spent the rest of Friday fine-tuning their omnibus bill that deals with everything from the square footage of marijuana leaf canopy that individual commercial growers can have to testing, packaging and labeling of cannabis products. The committee is expected to hold one more meeting Aug. 15 to finalize the regulatory and licensing framework before holding public hearings and work sessions on the proposed bill Sept. 26-28.

The full Legislature is tentatively scheduled to return for a special session in mid-October to deal with the marijuana legalization bill and other issues.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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