A recent study by the CDC showed that a startling number of motorists are driving while under the influence of marijuana or illicit drugs.
KETK News dug deeper into how East Texans are being affected and what law enforcement is doing to combat the life-or-death habit.
That leads us to Patti Foster, one East Texan who said she shouldn’t be alive today.
“June 18, 2002, my life stopped, completely smashed, dead, gone, white sheet pulled over me,” said Foster.
She and three friends were idling at a stoplight, while on the way to a bible study in Smith County. That’s when Foster unbuckled her seat belt to check on flowers in the back of the SUV.
“I turned, bam,” exclaimed Foster. “The impact happened, a semi, pulling a trailer full of cars, barreling down the highway at 70 mph plowed into the back of our completely stopped, not moving Tahoe.”
The accident took two lives, one passenger and the driver’s unborn child. The wreck completely changed the trajectory of Foster’s life after she was thrown from the car.
“Every single basic function of living, I had to re-learn, they had to teach me that, even like ABC’s, how to write, identify capital letters, lower case letters, everything, numbers, every single thing,” said Foster. “So I was truly a 34-year-old infant.”
Foster would later find out the driver was under the influence of several different types of drugs.
“Whenever you use drugs, even something as mild as marijuana and drive, all of the research shows that it impairs your ability to make good judgments, said Scott Harrison, Mothers Against Drunk Driving Director. “And people who have been using marijuana and drive get in more accidents, they can’t judge their speed very well, so sometimes they’re going much faster than they think.”
Despite being Mothers Against Drunk Driving, safety advocates from MADD in East Texas have expanded their activism well beyond alcohol.
“The concern is that they’re driving impaired, it’s not the marijuana use from our perspective, we’re opposed to drunk driving, distracted driving, and drug driving, it’s not the usage that concerns us, but the driving that concerns us,” said Harrison.
The research by the CDC shows an alarming number of drivers, 16-years or older, admitted to doing drugs, like marijuana or other kinds, before getting behind the wheel.
In a 2018 study, 12 million drivers confessed to driving under the influence of marijuana, while 2.3 million said they drove after using illicit drugs, like cocaine, heroin, and LSD.
Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said his deputies went from arresting about 10 people a year to 150 in 2018 for intoxicated driving charges. 2019 figures aren’t yet available locally or nationally but experts fear they could be even higher.
“An impaired driver is likely to kill somebody and they’re going to be just as dead as if they were shot with a shotgun or stabbed with a knife or whatever,” said Sheriff Smith. “So that’s my motive behind our stepped-up impaired driver enforcement.”
Companies like Inspector IR Systems, based in Frisco, are trying to get ahead of this dangerous trend to help law enforcement.
“This is a widespread problem that isn’t unique to Texas,” said John Redman, with Inspector IR Systems.
In fact, a study by AAA found the number of THC positive drivers in Washington, D.C. has doubled since pot was legalized there in 2012.
Because of this, the start-up company created a breathalyzer system that can tell how much THC, which produces a high, is in a driver’s system. That helps police determine if someone has used a legal CBD product or marijuana.
Sheriff Smith worries about new technology this early in the game since they haven’t had enough time to work out any kinks.
NORML, an organization working to reform marijuana laws for people who need it for medical reasons, has the same concerns.
“First of all, I think it’s very important that there be some way to test and see how much cannabis or THC is in someone’s system, but we need to make sure that it’s a well-vetted product, that there is testing into the per se limits that they’re going to be instituting and making sure that it’s all science-driven, as opposed to arbitrary,” said Jax Finkle, Executive Director of Texas NORML. “If you look at alcohol, there was research done and that’s how they came up with the percentage that they came up with.”
For now, both believe the most reliable way to test impaired drivers is still a field sobriety test. Here in Smith County, Sheriff Smith makes sure a warrant for a blood test is always an option too. That way they know exactly what is in the driver’s system and that driver knows what’s at stake.
“The way it impacted, not only us, not only the people that we in the actual crash, but our families, because look how that does affect, drug impairment does affect the friends and family and people you don’t even know,” said Foster.
It’s a sobering lesson that’s often learned when it’s already too late.