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More and more drivers impaired by drugs

By RITA PRICE The Columbus Dispatch Published: July 16, 2017 12:00 AM

The answer to how often an Ohio driver's blood or urine sample tested positive for fentanyl used to be "never," says a crime lab chief at the State Highway Patrol.

But over the past three months, the powerful synthetic opioid -- 50 times stronger than morphine and often mixed with heroin -- has been detected in about 1 in 20 patrol tests.

"Ten years ago, people would take this stuff and die," said toxicology director Joseph Jones, who saw his first rash of fentanyl overdose deaths a decade ago in Philadelphia. "And now they're out there on Ohio roads."

Figure in opioids of any kind, including prescription painkillers and tough-to-identify new analogs, and about 40 percent of the blood and urine analyzed at the patrol lab comes back positive for some level of exposure, said Jones, a panelist July 11 at the Ohio Drugged Driving Summit.

"My career will be defined by these drugs," he said. "It's just not going away."

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The summit, hosted by AAA and the Ohio Department of Public Safety, brought together impaired-driving experts, law enforcement officers, educators and other safety professionals to highlight what many deem a "crisis" of drugged driving.

According to the Ohio Department of Transportation, there were at least 4,615 drug-related crashes on Ohio roads last year, an increase of more than 21 percent since 2013.

Over the span of just one year, from 2015 to 2016, the tally jumped by 11 percent.

The toll is pushing the need for more research, specialized training for law-enforcement officers and improved testing of drivers, said Nathan Warren-Kigenyi, manager of traffic safety research and analysis at AAA's national office in Washington, D.C.

Marijuana also is at issue, he said. States that allow the use of marijuana for recreational or, in the case of Ohio, medical purposes, don't necessarily have a handle on how such laws might affect driver safety, Warren-Kigenyi said. "There's still a lot we don't know."

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The AAA strongly supports the Drug Recognition Expert program, which provides law-enforcement officers with three weeks of intense training and certification in detecting specific drug use among drivers.

"Unfortunately, drug-impaired driving doesn't look anything like alcohol-impaired driving," said the state program coordinator, Sgt. Adam Burkhart of the State Highway Patrol.

And field tests for detecting impairment due to heroin are different from those for intoxication. Drivers on opioids still might easily follow the movement of an officer's finger, for example, so a better indicator is whether their pupils are constricted.

Ohio was the 48th state to join the federally funded effort. But since embracing the training in 2011, Burkhart said, it has become a big proponent.

The state also has been leading the nation in unintentional overdose deaths, with at least 4,100 Ohioans dying last year.

"We're trending terribly," Burkhart said.

rprice@dispatch.com

@RitaPrice


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