Whether it’s for an illness or pain, Americans are not short on prescription medications.
“While the United States is roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume roughly 80 percent of narcotic prescriptions that are prescribed, and 99 percent of the hydrocodone prescriptions,” California Highway Patrol Sergeant Jarod Primicerio said.
While the need for these drugs is up for debate, law enforcement across the country and in California agree – too many who are popping pills are getting behind the wheel.
“We are in a place right now with the drugged driving that we were with alcohol 25 or 30 years ago,” Sacramento Police Sergeant Chris Prince told FOX40.
Some drivers don’t even realize they are impaired.
“Now you have, basically for lack of a better term, the soccer moms that have some medication they’re taking that might be driving the kids to school that are impaired because, ‘Shoulder hurt a little bit more this morning so I took an extra Vicodin,’ and suddenly now you’re an impaired driver just as if you’d been somebody smoking meth or cocaine,” Prince said.
Law enforcement says the problem is making drunk driving even more dangerous.
“A lot of drugs that people take to get loaded, are the same kinds of things that when mixed with alcohol will intensify the effect,” Virgina Harold, an executive officer at the California Board of Pharmacy, told FOX40.
While the effects of prescription drugs on drivers are similar to alcohol, testing for them in order to make an arrest is complex. There’s no easy Breathalyzer test, but there are other methods.
“This equipment here actually can take an oral fluid sample on the end of a swab and, in about five minutes, process it through the machine and give me a positive or negative,” Prince said.
Sacramento Police are using the new machines as part of a trial run but, so far, officers can only use the machine with consent from the driver and the law hasn’t yet allowed its results to be treated like a Breathalyzer test.
In the meantime, they call in officers with specialized training.
“If an officer arrests a driver that they presume is under the influence of drugs, if available, a drug recognition expert would be called to perform the evaluation,” Primicerio said.
The CHP has about 550 of those drug recognition experts, or DREs across the state. At the CHP academy in West Sacramento, DREs are constantly re-training as newer drugs come onto the market.
“We do seek out the experts and stay current with all of the changes, synthetic drugs both legal and illegal,” Primicerio said.
Each DRE can identify which of seven categories of drugs that may cause a driver to be impaired but the most effective weapon officers have against the problem is not enforcement, but education with doctors and pharmacists making the first step.
“In the case the drug is potentially going to cause a problem for you if you’re driving, or especially if it’s mixed with alcohol and you’re driving, they should be discussing that,” Harold said.
Unfortunately, too many drugged drivers were not prescribed the medication they’re taking.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 6.8 million Americans reported abusing prescription drugs in 2012, with more than half getting them through friends’ or relatives’ medicine cabinets.
The issue typically involves teens or young adults.
“What we recommend is a locked medicine cabinet or box that’s lockable,” Primicerio said.
As more drugs are prescribed, officers fear the problem on the roads will become more prevalent.
You know, in a perfect, world we’d have zero,” Prince said. “But we won’t, unfortunately.”