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Drug Recognition Experts

With the advent of recreational and medical marijuana in the State of Michigan, law enforcement is in a bit of a quandary because it’s not always easy to tell if someone is under the influence of marijuana, alcohol, some other drug, or a combination of all three. Part of the answer to this quandary is to engage a specially trained police officer called a “Drug Recognition Expert” or “DRE.”

The theory of the DRE program is that these officers, based on their specialized training, can determine whether someone is under the influence of drugs, through a visual and physical evaluation of the driver along with the administration of certain field sobriety tasks. Because most beat cops don’t have this training, a DRE is most often utilized to assist the arresting officer. Here in Michigan this most often will happen when the arresting officer believes a driver is under the influence of something, but a roadside preliminary breath test is well below the legal limit or shows a person has consumed no alcohol. The DREs are so confident in themselves that they believe that they can better evidence for the prosecution than actually toxicology reports of a person’s blood, breath or urine.

How a Drug Recognition Expert is Selected

Being trained as a DRE is often viewed as a privilege that is earned. DREs have very high status and their training is relatively expensive. For these and other reasons DREs are usually selected by their departments after they have already demonstrated success at using the National Highway Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) standardized field sobriety testing in making lots of DUI arrest. Successful candidates will have a demonstrated proficiency in criminal investigations and court A DRE candidate must have also demonstrated that they are proficient with courtroom testimony. In some cases, a DRE candidate will be required to submit a written application and/or successfully complete an oral interview.

It is interesting to note that a DRE candidate is not selected based on prior science, medical or even paramedic education. Instead, a DRE candidate is selected based almost exclusively on past performance relative to arresting DUI suspects and testifying in court. This is true even though a DRE will do things like take blood pressure, measure muscle flaccidity, and examine eyes and pupil dilation, they are not selected based on any medical training. They are effectively practicing medicine without a license! What they do is more akin to what a doctor of toxicology or neuropharmacology might do; which is give an opinion about the interplay between a drug and the pharmacodymics and pharmacokinetics.

DRE training begins with an ARIDE course, followed later by a 7-day curriculum. After completing DRE school an officer must successfully complete a minimum of twelve DRE evaluations. There is also a final exam. Though all of this may sound quite rigorous, and it is compared to most police training, the whole program is set up to assure that an officer passes, so the written exam is open book and the DRE student also has certain advantages in the practicum portion.

There are three parts to a DRE evaluation:

  • The first step is to surmise that the observed impairment is because of something other than alcohol.
  • Second, eliminate the possibility of impairment due to a medical reason or injury.
  • Third, to determine what category, or categories, of drugs is causing the impairment.

DRE training and certification records are maintained by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, but NHTSA is primarily responsible for sponsoring the DRE curriculum, providing program updates, professional conferences and developing and issuing training materials. The DRE Program is more formally called the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program (DECP).

Drug Categories and Categorization

Seven drug categories are utilized by DREs. The categories were developed such that they could easily be applied to the officer's field investigation. These categories are not scientifically based on shared chemical structures of the drugs in a specific category. They are also not based on the user's subjective experience when using the drug. Rather, the categories are based on a shared pattern of physical manifestations that the DRE can readily observe. The seven categories are: (1) CNS Depressants; (2) CNS Stimulants; (3) Hallucinogens; (4) PCPs; (5) Narcotic Analgesics; (6) Inhalants; (7) Cannabis.

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