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Colorado’s DUI Campaign Focuses on Drugged Drivers

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CDOT Eye PosterColorado’s “The Heat Is On” DUI enforcement effort has expanded in tandem with a national DUI crackdown running through 3 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, with a focus on drugged driving. The campaign, launched on August 19 by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), Colorado State Patrol, and statewide law enforcement agencies, aims to cut down on car accidents caused by drivers under the influence of drugs, whether they have been prescribed or are illegal.

According to test results reported to CDOT, between 2006 and 2010 at least 411 people were killed in Colorado car accidents involving a driver who tested positive for drugs. These accidents comprise 16% of the state’s 2,551 traffic fatalities during that five-year period.

As CDOT reports,

‘Driving impaired by any drug is illegal, and just as deadly and dangerous, as drinking and driving,’ said Col. James Wolfinbarger, chief of the Colorado State Patrol.  ‘It doesn’t matter if the drugs are legal and were obtained with a prescription, medical marijuana card or purchased over-the-counter.  If the drugs impact your ability to operate a motor vehicle you will be arrested for DUI.’

Marijuana was found in 58% of drivers who were pulled over and tested for drugs, and, between 2009 and 2010, there was a 35% increase in the number of test results that showed cannabis as the drug involved.

CDOT continues:

‘We can’t pinpoint one reason why we have a seen an increase in drivers under the influence of marijuana.  The rise in the number dispensaries and registry card holders may be a factor, although certainly not the only reason,’ said Glenn Davis, manager of Impaired Driving programs at CDOT. ‘Illegal drug use, as well as combining medications with alcohol is a growing problem. CDOT will continue to provide funding to train law enforcement officers to recognize when drivers are impaired by drugs or alcohol.’

One of the ways the state’s 54 law enforcement agencies identify drugged drivers is with specially trained Drug Recognition Experts (DREs), whose 2011 numbers are expected to increase from 173 to more than 190 by the year’s end. DREs are brought in once a driver has been pulled over and arrested for DUI, and when the cause of the impairment is not apparent. The number of evaluations conducted by DREs rose from 465 in 2005 to 910 in 2010.

The anti-drugged driving campaign is supported by the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, a major trade association of medical marijuana dispensaries, which is teaming up with CDOT to reach drivers through outlets that sell medical marijuana.

“We want medical marijuana patients to know that it is not safe to medicate and drive. We will work with Colorado medical marijuana centers to educate their customers about the effects of driving under the influence of cannabis, as well as the risk of a DUI or much worse,” said Michael Elliot, executive director of MMIG.

Writing for Denver Westward Blogs, Michael Robert quotes Heather Halpape, CDOT’s public-relations manager for safety programs:

‘… [F]or some reason, there’s a disconnect’ with medical marijuana patients. ‘They think that because they have a card, they can drive under the influence of marijuana. So we need to educate patients — let them know that just because you have a card doesn’t mean you can drive under the influence of cannabis. Medical marijuana is legal, but beer is legal, too, and that doesn’t mean you can drink and drive’…

‘I believe some states have done campaigns about prescription medications,” she says, “but I’m not aware of one doing a lot with drugged driving, and specifically medical marijuana. We may be the first to have a campaign like this.’

Local pharmacists also support the campaign and caution drivers to be aware of drug interactions. “Please take a few minutes to talk with your pharmacist or prescriber about whether or not your medication can impair your ability to drive. A few minutes could save your life or someone else’s life,” said Anna Cetre, a pharmacist with Walgreens in Denver. “Remember that certain medications can be extremely dangerous when combined with alcohol or illegal drugs.”

Funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the DUI enforcement campaign includes radio ads, billboards, gas station and convenience store signs, and posters distributed to hundreds of pharmacies and medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state.

Sometimes it is hard to come up with a solution. A children’s librarian in another state who takes pain medications for joint pain told this reporter that the pain medication makes her drowsy, but that she can’t avoid driving because she has to get to work and there are no public transportation options.

Drivers can find more information and a free smartphone app that helps to call a cab at

Image by Colorado Department of Transportation, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


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