Yellowstone County steps up impaired driving enforcement as legalized pot hits the streets
BILLINGS - It’s a place where you don’t want to wind up, the DUI room at the Yellowstone County Detention Center. But undoubtedly a few people will start the New Year here.
“It never leaves your head. The sights, the smells. It’s something that motivates you to keep going out there. You might feel like you ruined somebody’s night having a good time, but if you can stop them that night maybe prevent a fatality down the road,” says Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office Lt. Robert Lester.
Lester has seen firsthand the devastation caused by drunk and drugged driving during his 14 years with the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office.
He also serves as chairman of the Yellowstone County DUI Task Force.
“I’m a drug recognition instructor, so if somebody gets a driver that they believe is under the influence of drugs then they would call me. I’d come in an do an evaluation right in this same room,” he says.
He says he is concerned that recreational sales of marijuana could lead to more impaired drivers on the roads, something they’ve already been preparing for.
“What we did that is unique at the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office is that we put our entire uniformed division, everybody that wears a uniform whether they are a courthouse deputy and SRO or a guy like me, through the intermediate DUI class which teaches officers about drugged driving. So if somebody is under the influence of anything other than alcohol, they are trained on what to observe and not to just let them go if they blow zeroes,” he says.
Just like with alcohol DUI’s, they are looking for signs of impairment.
“Are you able to divide your attention to multiple tasks? When you hand me your Costco card instead of your insurance card. You forget what you are looking for. How you exit the vehicle. Your speech, your eyes, things like that. Every drug will show an indicator of some sort of impairment when I have contact with the driver,” Lester says.
With marijuana that includes a blood test where two vials are drawn and sent off to the state lab.
Unlike with alcohol, it can take over a month to get the results.
“We don’t have a marijuana field test like a breath sample in the field. That’s going to be a way out,” he says.
The limit in Montana for driving under the influence of marijuana is 5 nanograms.
“The five nanograms is the per-say limit, so that is the example of the .08 for limit. But regardless, the five nanograms, if I can show impairment, even if you are below, we can still charge you with DUI,” he says.
Lester says cannabis typically has about a four-hour window where impairment levels are peaked. Eating the drug can make it last much longer.
“So when people start to get the edibles that come into town, your brownies, your gummi bears, things like that, it’s going to last a lot longer. So people are going to have the effects of cannabis in their system much longer than they believe,” he says.
Lester’s advice is the same no matter how you’re ringing in the New Year: Don’t take a chance.
“Just remember the consequences of driving impaired can last a lifetime, “ he says.