© 2024 WUTC
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

There May Be A Green Light For Pot, But Not For Driving High

In Washington state, dogs don't need to sniff out pot anymore, but troopers are keeping an eye out for high drivers.
Matthew Staver
Bloomberg via Getty Images
In Washington state, dogs don't need to sniff out pot anymore, but troopers are keeping an eye out for high drivers.

Western states have led the way in the legalization of marijuana, first with medical marijuana, and then with the legalization of recreational pot in Colorado and Washington last November.

It's been quite an adjustment for the police. Washington State Patrol is adapting to the new reality in a variety of ways, from untraining dogs that sniff out pot, to figuring out how to police high drivers.

A Smell Once Forbidden

I'm driving through Seattle on Interstate 5. It runs from Canada clear down to Mexico, and cops sometimes call it the Pot Highway, because of all the marijuana they've intercepted along this route. But things are a little different now.

To test how different, I'm carrying. It's less than 1 ounce — a legal amount under state law. Really, it's just a bud. But it's sitting right here in my cup holder, in plain sight, and it feels weird having it there. Especially because I'm on my way to meet some state troopers with drug-sniffing dogs.

"This is what we would classify as monthly maintenance training," says Steve Gardner, who trains the dogs to detect cocaine, crack, meth and heroin, but not marijuana — not anymore.

State lawyers decided things would be simpler this way, since a dog's nose can't tell the difference between legal and illegal quantities of pot. Still, the dogs don't unlearn the scent.

"It's a perishable skill," Gardner explains. "Over time, it becomes less sharp for them, but once you've trained them to detect it, you're not going to get them away from it."

A Washington state trooper rewards a drug-sniffing dog named Piper for "alerting" on a hidden drug. The dogs are no longer trained to recognize marijuana.
Martin Kaste / NPR
A Washington state trooper rewards a drug-sniffing dog named Piper for "alerting" on a hidden drug. The dogs are no longer trained to recognize marijuana.

But the new generation of dogs — the ones trained since last year — know nothing about pot. Piper is one of those.

She's getting her reward from her handler for detecting a drug — not pot — that's hidden on a parked truck. Not once during her search did she take any notice of me, or the bud of marijuana in my coat pocket.

Dave Rodriguez laments the end of pot-sniffing dogs.

"That was an important tool, using drug dogs to help you establish probable cause," says Rodriguez, a federal official based in Seattle. He works for the president's "drug czar," and focuses on high-intensity drug trafficking in the Northwest. He says that big drug busts may be harder to come by now, because local cops are rethinking what to do when they encounter marijuana.

"Everybody's very cautious, because they don't want to get sued. They don't want to set bad case law," he says.

It's clear Rodriguez doesn't like the state's legalization law, but he echoes the "wait and see" policy recently laid out by the Justice Department.

The real test of that comes next year, when growers start producing marijuana under state license. The feds say that pot had better not show up in the rest of the country. State officials promise to make sure it doesn't.

High On The Highway: The Other Big Policing Issue

It's around midnight on Friday, and Ray Seaburg, a trooper with the Washington State Patrol, is roaming the streets near one of Seattle's nightlife areas. He's part of a dedicated DUI unit, and lately he's on the lookout for drivers who might be trying pot for the first time.

"You're talking about a stick of dynamite there essentially, because essentially that person doesn't know how they're gonna react to the marijuana they've smoked, because they've never done it before, because it was illegal before," says Seaburg.

The upside for Seaburg is that because pot is legal now, drivers are a bit more chatty about it. He says people are open about telling him that they smoked, even if it was shortly before driving. What they may not realize is that they're giving Seaburg a reason to ask more questions, he says, for example: "How long ago did you smoke? Did you smoke? Do you have any in your possession? How often do you smoke?"

Depending on the answers, Seaburg might do a field sobriety test, and if that doesn't go well, he says, "then at that point, we would have to go for a blood draw."

The ballot initiative that legalized pot also established a DUI limit for THC, the active chemical in pot. And to check THC, you need blood. It's a laborious process.

"It takes time to do a warrant," says Seaburg. "It takes time to get a hold of a judge to approve that warrant. And then it takes time to go to the hospital to have that blood draw done by a professional."

Nevertheless, police statewide are ordering more blood tests than ever. And more of the tests are coming back positive. NPR has obtained preliminary numbers for 2013 from the state toxicology lab.

According to the preliminary statistics, roughly 27 percent of the blood tests for suspected impaired driving showed detectable THC. Before this year, that number was around 20 percent. That's a 7-point jump in the months since legalization.

Is Pot The New Alcohol?

"Do we have a marijuana impairment problem on our highways?" asks Steve Sarich, a medical marijuana seller and activist. He answers his own question with an emphatic no.

Sarich opposed legalization last year, because it established the blood-level limit at 5 nanograms per milliliter. He says the whole point was to prosecute habitual pot users like him — people with high tolerances, who he says are OK to drive.

"You cannot show me a study that says 5 nanograms is the level of impairment for everybody out there," says Sarich. "It just doesn't exist."

Sarich sees the blood-level limit as a conspiracy against heavy pot users, especially those who say they need it as medicine. Conspiracy theories aside, it does appear that it's riskier now — legally speaking — to drive in Washington state after consuming marijuana. Defense attorney Jesse Corkern says he's seeing a tide of what he's dubbed "green DUIs."

"Yeah, we're getting many, many more calls from people that have been charged, or they've been arrested over the weekend," Corkern says.

Corkern credits the THC blood-level limit for the increase, because it draws a "bright line" for juries, like the blood alcohol limit. And, in fact, that was what sponsors of legalization promised: to make pot more like alcohol. Corkern sees the analogy, but he says most people aren't there yet.

"You go to the store, you pick up a six-pack, you throw it in with your groceries and don't think anything of it, right?" Corkern asks. "We don't have that same approach to cannabis yet as a populace. ... It's going to take a while for people to get to that comfort zone with cannabis."

And that includes the police. Corkern says it's undoubtedly legal to, for example, carry marijuana in your car's cup holder. But is it a good idea? He would advise a little more discretion.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.