DUIs 'Business As Usual' After Cannabis Legalization In AZ
Marijuana sales will become legal in Arizona after voters approved Proposition 207 in the November election. The statewide law will allow the purchase, possession and cultivation of limited amounts of cannabis without a medical card. Opponents of the law worry it will lead to increased use among children and more vehicle accidents. While Proposition 207 has changed some restrictions, the law explicitly prohibits driving under the influence. KNAU’s Angela Gervasi spoke with Coconino County Chief Deputy Bret Axlund about how the new law applies to suspected DUIs — and how law enforcement is adapting.
AG: When [Proposition 207] did pass, were you surprised?
BA: We weren't surprised. We knew this was coming.
We thought the last time it came up on the ballot in fact that it was going to be coming. It's fairly simple for us. We just follow the law. We enforce the law. We don't interpret it. We allow the courts to do that, the county attorney’s office to give us guidance.
AG: What are some main concerns the sheriff's office has with this new legalization?
BA: Well, right now, certainly it is driving under the influence.
AG: What is the current protocol for pulling somebody over who seems to be driving under the influence of marijuana — is there a sobriety test for that?
BA: There is. NHTSA, which is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has certified three field sobriety tests. ... The one where they bring the stimulus up in front of the person's eyes, and they move it from side to side.
The second one is the walk and turn test where they take the 9 steps on a line, and turn and take the 9 steps back.
And the third test is the one legged stand. And that's the one where they have to raise their foot off of the ground for approxiamately 30 seconds and then hold their balance.
AG: Is there ever a case where people might pass those tests or maybe pass two of them and you're still thinking in your gut, maybe they're impaired? Has that ever been a situation?
BA: You know, absolutely. Some people are better at doing these tests than others.
If you're talking to a gymnast, or someone, that they used to tell us that works on a high-rise building that walks on the edge of buildings all the time that might have better balance than the normal person. They might do better on the test.
If they're unable to drive or operate a vehicle, but there's not enough evidence there to support an arrest for driving under the influence, then we might look at other options — like taking them home. Or getting them another ride.
Sometimes, people have medical conditions that mimic impairment.
AG: Is that ever a concern as well, that they might be undergoing some sort of medical issue?
BA: Every time it is. Because we're responsible for their safety.
When you see a person that may be suffering from a diabetic episode. They may look exactly like what a person driving impaired under marijuana or under alcohol might look like.
I've watched people drive off the road into oncoming traffic, and I'll tell you it looks just like a person that's under the influence of alcohol, but a lot of times when we get medics there because at the point that they're experiencing this emergency they're completely out of it.
AG: This is more of a general question, but do you expect to see any just big changes in your day to day with this legalization of marijuana?
BA: No. I don't. I think for us, it's business as usual. It's just some things now are not a crime today that were a crime last week.
We deal with changes all the time in this environment. Policies change due to, you know, incidents across the nation.
If we can at all have the ability to educate the public on some of these laws — they're new. And we have to take into account that the public is not fully aware of these changes in the law.
So really, our first option, our first direction to folks is going to be to educate the best we can. ... Whether it's a new cell phone law while you're operating a vehicle or seatbelt laws when those came out. We go through an educational period.
It’s something new but the voters have spoken. At the beginning, the Sheriff’s Association, and sheriffs throughout the state were against this just for the public safety ramifications. But at this point we’re going to enforce the law as it was voted in
AG: Thank you so much for your time — I really appreciate it.
BA: You’re welcome. Happy to get this information out, because this is the education piece that saves us a lot of headaches down the road.
This interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity.