As the percentage of alcohol-related driving under the influence offenses continue to decrease in Phoenix, the number of drug-related driving offenses have increased in recent years.
Driving under the influence (DUI) is the act of driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs including illegal drugs, medical marijuana and prescription medication.
Phoenix Police Department Sgt. Trent Crump attributes the rise in DUI arrests to a combination of stricter enforcement and more people abusing illegal and prescription drugs.
Arizona has several hundred officers trained to recognize the symptoms of drug impairment, Crump said.
Officers are better trained now to pinpoint someone impaired by a substance other than alcohol, compared to only a few decades ago.
Alberto C. Gutier, Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety (GOHS) director, says the increase in drug-related DUI arrests can also be attributed to the availability of prescription drugs.
Although the percentage of total DUI arrests has decreased, the number of drug-related DUI arrests has significantly increased, Gutier said.
The GOHS reported that the number of DUI arrests decreased by 13 percent in 2012 from 2011. Meanwhile, the number of drug-related DUI arrests increased by 12 percent, increasing the overall DUI arrests to 14 percent.
A significant factor contributing to the increase in total DUI arrests in Phoenix in 2011 was due to driving under the influence of drugs, which included arrests for driving under the influence of medical marijuana, illegal drugs, and prescription medications, even if the pills were dispensed legally.
One of the primary reasons for the increase in drug-related DUI arrests is because many people who are pulled over for this offense are not aware that driving under the influence of medical marijuana or prescription drugs is illegal, Crump said.
Kelley Dupps, program specialist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), says Arizona needs to strengthen its drug-related DUI laws.
MADD is the nation’s largest nonprofit organization working to stop drunk driving and support those affected by drunk driving. The program is now on a mission to stop all impaired driving, including those driving under the influence of drugs.
“Almost half of all drivers who were killed in crashes and tested positive for drugs also had alcohol in their system,” reported MADD.
Under Arizona law, the penalties for drug-related DUI and alcohol-related DUI convictions are the same. An individual charged with a first-time DUI drugs offense, such as a DUI marijuana or DUI illegal or prescription drugs, can be convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor as long as there are no other aggravated factors present and it is not a repeat offense. Drug DUI penalties can include 10 days in jail, a 90-day driver’s license suspension, drug and alcohol education program, probation, installation of an ignition interlock device for six months and assessments, fees and fines that can exceed $1,200.
Although police officers assert medical marijuana and prescription drug abuse as the primary reason causing the increase in drug-related DUI arrests, one of the principal factors contributing to the increase is because law enforcement in Arizona has stepped up its overall efforts to reduce the total number of driving under the influence offenses. Phoenix police officers use DUI checkpoints and DUI task forces throughout the city to help keep impaired drivers off the road.
• Kelly Kleber is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.