State Police Crime Lab Begins Drugged Driver Blood Testing - Southern Maryland Headline News

State Police Crime Lab Begins Drugged Driver Blood Testing

Program Eliminates Need for Outside Lab; Service will be Available to All Md. Police Departments

PIKESVILLE, Md. (Dec. 10, 2009)—Maryland State Police Superintendent Colonel Terrence B. Sheridan was joined by federal, state, and local officials today to announce a new program that tests the blood of suspected drugged drivers in the State Police crime lab, while making it easier and cheaper for police and prosecutors to obtain the forensic evidence needed to prosecute these dangerous drivers in court.

Colonel Sheridan announced the testing of blood from suspected drugged drivers will now be done for all Maryland police departments in the Toxicology Unit of the State Police Forensic Sciences Laboratory. The blood will be tested in the lab free of charge for all allied law enforcement agencies that request this service.

In recent years, the ability of police in Maryland to obtain blood tests of drivers suspected of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs was becoming more and more challenging. There were only two labs on the East Coast willing to work with law enforcement to perform the tests and both were out of state. Between a growing reluctance to send their staff to court to testify and rising costs to law enforcement for the testing and court appearances, police departments were having an increasingly difficult time obtaining the scientific evidence needed to convict a driver of operating under the influence of drugs.

"Earlier this year, Governor Martin O'Malley and I met with President Obama's National Drug Control Policy Director, Gil Kerlikowske, and he expressed his concern about the prevalence and public safety threat of drugged driving nationally," Colonel Sheridan said. "He asked for our assistance in reducing this risk and we assured him Maryland would help lead the way."

"Now, if a police officer anywhere in Maryland stops a suspected drugged driver and a blood test is performed, we are there for him or her," Colonel Sheridan continued. "We will ensure that if drugs are present in the blood, we will identify them and our experts will be in court to provide the testimony the prosecutor needs to help get a conviction. There is no excuse for driving drunk or drugged in Maryland."

"With the strong partnership of the Maryland State Police, we are taking the critical steps to making Maryland roads safer," said Neil J. Pedersen, State Highway Administrator. "The addition of this new blood testing equipment is an important tool to remove the irresponsible drivers who threaten us all."

"I'm thrilled that NHTSA played a key role in bringing this endeavor to reality," Dr. Beth Baker, Regional Administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. "The new lab will be yet another valuable tool available to Maryland law enforcement in their fight against impaired driving."

While the issue of drunk driving receives a lot of attention, drugged driving is not as prominent, but is just as deadly. In his proclamation declaring December National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, President Barack Obama mentions "a disturbing increase in Americans driving under the influence of drugs."

Driving under the influence of drugs does not only involve illegal drugs. It includes prescription drugs and over the counter drugs taken inappropriately, or in violation of prescribed recommendations. Drugged drivers come in all ages, genders and races. Drugs of choice can range from marijuana to anti-depressants and prescription pain killers.

A study released in August 2009 by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety looked at prescription and over the counter drug use by drivers 55 years old and older. The report said 95 percent of those studied had at least one medical condition and 78 percent used one or more medications, but only 28 percent said they had any level of awareness of the possible impact the use of their medication would have on their ability to drive.

A three-month study conducted at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center and released in "Traffic Injury Prevention" in 2004, examined 168 motor vehicle crash victims, of whom 108 were the drivers involved in the crashes. Just over half of those drivers (50.9 percent) tested positive for drugs other than alcohol. One in four of those drivers tested positive for marijuana use.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted a survey of high school seniors in 2008. The survey indicated more than 12 percent of seniors admitted to driving under the influence of marijuana within the two weeks before they were surveyed.

Last year in Maryland, 708 people were charged with operating a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs. Police are increasingly confronted with a driver who exhibits obvious signs of impaired driving, but there is no smell of alcoholic beverages and the reading on the breath test for blood alcohol content is zero. This is usually an indication the driver is under the influence of one or more drugs.

There are currently 128 specially-trained 'drug recognition experts' in police departments in Maryland who can administer tests that will indicate a driver is impaired by drugs, but they can only narrow the drugs down to a category. Without scientific evidence, they cannot identify the specific drug or drugs the person is under the influence of. The specific drugs have to be identified through a blood test.

Colonel Sheridan contacted Administrator Neil Pedersen of the State Highway Administration for help in establishing the blood testing program within the State Police lab. With the support of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the Maryland Highway Safety Office, a grant of more than $150,000 was obtained to purchase the necessary testing equipment for the lab.

Three scientists were hired to run the operation, including Dr. Ross Lowe, who will oversee the testing program. The program was developed with the assistance and ultimate approval of the state toxicologist, Dr. Barry Levine.

The testing program is now operational and cases are being analyzed for pending trials. Scientists at the State Police lab expect to conduct between 300 and 500 blood tests for drugs in the next year.

Source: Maryland State Police, HQ, Pikesville

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