AUBURN — Although adults can buy and consume marijuana legally under Maine law, like alcohol, should they be getting behind the wheel after toking on a joint?
And if they do, can they be busted for driving under the influence?
While law enforcement officers in Maine have been equipped for years with the tools necessary to gauge whether a drinking driver is over the legal limit, they appear to lack that same toolbox to detect the level of impairment of pot-smoking or edible-nibbling drivers.
On Friday, police officers, sheriff’s deputies and game wardens, largely from Maine, were put to the test at a remote modern building that houses the offices of the nongovernmental, private, for-profit Maine Public Safety Training Institute near the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport.
“They’re learning how to detect, investigate and document impairment,” institute Executive Director Andrea Thompson said.
A group of seven volunteers spent the afternoon sitting around a conference room table smoking, eating and vaping cannabis with various delivery systems in varying doses. Bottles of soda and bags of Doritos were available to slake cottonmouths and satisfy the munchies.
Elsewhere in the office complex, the officers underwent classroom training on how to conduct a field sobriety test on the cannabis impaired.
Later in the day, they were tasked with applying their newly acquired skills on the variously buzzed volunteers in an effort to determine their respective levels of impairment.
“We’re trying to teach them how to find the clues, what to look for, what the variables are,” Thompson said, “and then, more importantly, documenting it appropriately.”
The officers weren’t made aware of which volunteers had consumed which type of cannabis and how much. Nor were they told which volunteer had abstained because he was the designated driver for two University of New Hampshire students.
Volunteers ranged from occasional users to veteran stoners, Thompson said.
After each officer had conducted field tests, the group later met for a roundtable discussion about the different elements that each of the volunteers had performed, such as the “walk and turn,” the “touch the finger to the nose, and the “stand on one foot.”
The officers assessed their volunteers’ respective performances and gauged their levels of impairment. Only afterward were they informed about the level of dosing of the volunteers, Thompson said.
“Some people are very, very, very obvious,” she said. “The regular users aren’t so much.”
One volunteer from Lewiston who vaped multiple dabs of THC concentrate passed test after test while a school teacher from West Paris who consumed only 15 milligrams of THC in a chocolate bar was arrested at least once.
Not all volunteers who get high have the classic symptoms, such as bloodshot eyes, Thompson said. But many may have difficulty following simple verbal commands.
Instructors emphasized often that “consumption doesn’t necessarily equal impairment,” Thompson said.
The volunteers also were quizzed afterward about whether they felt OK to get behind the wheel or too impaired to drive.
Several of the volunteers said before they got stoned that they would never drive while high, but later said they felt fine to drive after getting a buzz on.
People are still learning how much they can consume without being impaired, Thompson said. There’s no formula.
And, similar to alcohol, the effects of consumption can take time to kick in, she said. Someone might snack on edibles and feel no effect, leading them to consume a larger dose until eventually they might “greenout,” or pass out from cannabis consumption, she said.
The institute began training cannabis impairment to law enforcement in 2017 when national traffic safety agencies flagged a trend of more cannabis-impaired drivers getting behind the wheel, Thompson said.
“The goal is to keep people off the streets” who are legally impaired, Thompson said.
In addition to field test training, the officers are schooled in the medicine and science behind cannabis use in a lecture that features an hourlong Powerpoint by the institute’s medical director on the clinical effects of marijuana use on the body.
An attorney and former law enforcement officer who is an expert in the legal aspects of marijuana use in Maine and works for Dirigo Safety — housed in the same office complex as the institute — also serves as an instructor in the program.
Thompson said this type of training, which is offered to prosecutors as well, likely has fallen to the private sector because cannabis remains illegal under federal law.
That might lead to federal funding concerns for state, county and local law enforcement agencies, she said.
When her company travels south to teach at the Massachusetts State Police Academy, “there are a lot of technicalities,” she said. The volunteers aren’t allowed to consume any of the cannabis products on any state property, she said. “So we have to take them off-site and into an enclosed trailer.”
All volunteers are vetted to rule out anyone with a criminal background or dependency issues and — these days — anyone who might have COVID-19, Thompson said.
So, while law enforcement officers are able to back up their field tests with breath tests and blood draws to determine whether a motorist’s blood/alcohol content is over the legal limit of 0.08 %, no such lab result is available yet for testing a cannabis-impaired driver.
Because THC can remain in the bloodstream for long periods, Thompson said, “There’s no way right now for us to know, did they consume today, or did they consume two weeks ago.”
Until the science has caught up, she said the field test training in observation and documentation of impairment conducted at her institute is the current standard.