Friday, March 12, 2004

Bill urges fighting drugged driving

Portman proposes zero-tolerance rule

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Citing a list of Cincinnati car accidents in which drugs were involved, Rep. Rob Portman introduced legislation Thursday that would help police crack down on people driving while on drugs.

Police have no instant test, as they do with alcohol, to detect illegal drugs. Most states, including Ohio, have no set blood-level standards for drugs comparable to the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level.

"It is time to combat the problem of drug-impaired drivers in the same way we have dealt with drunk drivers," Portman said at an afternoon news conference flanked by Ohio state troopers, Ohio first lady Hope Taft, and several Democratic backers of the bill.

"Bottom line, it will save lives," said Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., a recovering alcoholic.

The Drug Impaired Driving Enforcement Act would encourage states to adopt a national model law for drug-impaired driving. The level considered impaired would be any level greater than zero.

That means that anyone with a detectable level of illegal drugs would be considered impaired.

But Keith Stroup, founder of a pro-marijuana group, said the law would ensnare marijuana smokers who may not have smoked for days and aren't endangering anyone on the road.

A regular smoker, someone who may smoke every weekend, could test positive weeks later.

"There's not a scientist in the world who believes you're impaired at that point," said Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "You're not throwing out a net that's simply going to catch impaired drivers. You're going to catch all marijuana smokers."

Part of Portman's bill would pay for research to come up with better tests. Right now, police can collect blood, saliva or urine. But that must be sent to a lab.

Taft said Ohio high school students know it's easier to detect alcohol, and that's one reason marijuana has become more popular. She cited a Franklin County survey of high schoolers that showed 19 percent of seniors said they had driven high in the previous year.

Setting a level of zero would make it easier for police to prove in court that someone was impaired, said Col. Paul McClellan of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

Rather than having to prove that the drugs caused the erratic driving, any detectable amount of drugs would be proof enough.

"Drugged driving is a much more prevalent problem than the public realizes," said McClellan, a former Batavia-based trooper.

The bill would cost taxpayers about $800,000 a year. That money would go toward researching better ways of detecting drugs, training police, and providing counseling and treatment for people prosecuted.

The bill, which the Bush administration backs, has a fairly good chance of passage, both Portman and chief Democratic sponsor Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan said.

While the liquor and restaurant industries fought a national 0.08 percent standard for alcohol, this bill has almost no organized opposition.

Unlike that bill, states would not be penalized for failing to adopt a zero-standard law for drugs, but would be rewarded if they do.

"This is more carrot than stick," Portman said. "This is not only bipartisan but doable."


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