Cops and Druggers

By Jeff Forester 05/26/11

A Minneapolis training program lets drug users teach cops a thing or two about drugs.

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Minneapolis cops are getting smarter about drugs.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

It's a question that's been around ever since there were drug laws, cops and stoners: If you manage to keep it together when you're stopped by the cops, can they tell if you're high?

Officers who stop substance abusers during routine traffic stops can often discern that something is just not kosher. But if their suspects register zero on blood alcohol tests, they have little choice but to let them go. Now an odd program in Minneapolis isaiming to change all that, by  training cops to be Drug Recognition Experts, or DREs. A two week certification program helps officers identify drug intoxication--and even the specific drug a driver might have been using. Said DRE instructor Sergent Don Marose of the Minnesota State Patrol: "It is an area of training that has been sorely lacking. We get a ton of training on alcohol, and can dose up people and use them in training, but we can't do that with illegal drugs, obviously."

The solution? Send cops out into the streets to talk with people, find some locals who are high on illegal drugs, and ask them to come back to the station to help officers learn about drugs in the field. Sure, you bet, officer. Common sense would suggest that users might not be too willing to step forward and volunteer under these conditions, but incredibly, the program has caught on and made a name for itself around town. “People we have dealt with in the past talk it up, and a network starts going. I don't know why, but the folks on the street have started calling it a survey," Sergeant Marose told us. And now, says Marose, they have people coming to the station high on drugs, asking if the police need any help with training. "There have been times," said Marose, "when we have to place them under arrest due to past warrants or possession." Often the volunteers have not eaten, so officers frequently take them to a drive-through, or buy them a pack of cigarettes. "Obviously we can't give them money,” said Marose.

When The Fix asked about the most dangerous drugs, Sergeant Marose was unequivocal:  "Alcohol is the most dangerous in terms of impairing driving, but from a personal standpoint, the inhalants like gasoline are dangerous because they were never intended to go into a person." The hardest drug to detect? "LSD, because there is such a small amount ingested, it’s hard for the lab to detect," said Marose.

Of course, long-time users often become adept at covering up their drug use. And many  "high functioning" alcoholics  learn over the yearshow to avoid stumbling or slurring their speech. Some drinkers will memorize the alphabet backwards and practice other common sobriety tests. So what does Sergeant Morose suggest for officers in the field? Simple—you blind them with science. "It's the stuff people can't practice, like pupil size, blood pressure and pulse," that ultimately give them away, Morose said.

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.