Drug impairment focus of training at Walla Walla Police Department

Officers from agencies around the region this week learned more about recognizing signs of non-alcohol impairment.

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WALLA WALLA -- Law enforcement officers from nearly 10 regional agencies attended an Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement training course hosted by city police this week.

"They're learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of drug impairment," said Officer Eric Knudson, a drug recognition expert with the Walla Walla Police Department. "This helps them understand (impairment) might be drugs instead of alcohol."

According to training materials supplied during the class, more than 8 percent of Americans have used illicit drugs in the past month. Of those 19.5 million people, 14.6 million are marijuana users.

More than 10 million people abuse prescription medications such as Prozac, hydrocodone and oxycontin, according to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The danger to other drivers on the road, according to Knudson, is that many prescription drugs are narcotics and cause drowsiness and other alcohol-like symptoms. Narcotics can also reduce the ability of a driver to see well at night, Knudson said.

"One of the most common drugs we see is narcotics," said Washington State Trooper Oscar Garcia.

Other drugs, Knudson said, can cause hyper-aggressive driving in the case of certain stimulants or, like marijuana, can cause spatial disorientation.

"Cannabis creates an altered perception of time and distance," Knudson said, stating that cannabis-impaired drivers will often forget the instructions of a field sobriety test.

Knudson said city police typically see about 20 cases of drivers impaired by drugs other than alcohol each year, but the number may be misleading.

"If they blow over a .08 (blood alcohol content), we don't probe any further," Knudson said, adding many drugs are used in connection with alcohol, but don't show up on a breath test.

Knudson said the department has been hosting ARIDE classes for about three years, and the classes also help officers tell the difference between medical conditions like diabetes or exhaustion and drug use.

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lukehegdal@wwub.com or 526-8326.

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