Life After Legalization: DWI

Life After Legalization: DWI
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Joplin police officer Jared Swann is on a mission, inspired by personal experience.

Swann’s brother was a passenger in a car that was hit by a drunk driver in Joplin in 1999. One person was killed and Swann’s brother suffered a brain stem injury that left him unable to move.

Since 2013, Jared Swann has been a Joplin DWI officer.

I do it so other people don’t have to have that kind of pain in their life,” Swann says.

Swann’s position is funded in part by the state of Missouri and in part by the city of Joplin. “I have free will to go anywhere i want in the city. I’m not confined to a beat like a patrol officer is,” Swann says. “Sadly, there’s only one of me doing this.”

On patrol, Swann watches for driving offenses that might indicate impairment, then looks for signs as he questions drivers.

Swann worries that the legalization of medicinal marijuana in Missouri is likely to lead to more abuse of the drug. “We already see a fair amount of intoxicated drivers on marijuana,” Swann says. “If people are going to use it, then really they have to realize it’s the same as alcohol. Really you can’t get behind the wheel of a car, a couple thousand pound vehicle, and drive it.”

Personally, with the line of business I’m in, I’m scared to death,” says Teddy Steen, Executive Director of Ascent.

Steen says she abused various drugs herself from the age of 14 until her mid-30’s. She gave them up 30 years ago. She founded Ascent in 2008 to help substance abusers in the Joplin-area.

Steen says the marijuana that’s available today is much more potent than what was on the streets a generation ago. She’s worried about where the legalization of medicinal marijuana could lead.

“I’ve smoked other marijuana that was not anywhere near as potent as today’s and there’s no way I could have driven,” Steen says.

Back on patrol, officer Swann pulls over a pickup truck on 32nd street driving after dark without headlights. As Swann questions the driver, he picks up the smell of alcohol, and perhaps a faint odor of marijuana.

Swann looks for possible signs of marijuana intoxication, such as dilated pupils, redness in the soft tissue under his eyes, and the inability to maintain mental focus.

Swann has seen enough to ask the man to step out of the truck.

“I’ve never taken a field sobriety test before,” the man says.

“There’s a first time for everything, right?” Swan responds.

As another officer observes, Swann conducts a series of tests, checking the driver’s dexterity, balance and even his perception of time.

Swann asks the man to turn around, then puts handcuffs on his wrists.

“I know you’ve been smoking more recently than (two days ago), Swann says.

“Okay I’ll give you that,” the man says with a laugh.

“This is all I do bud,” Swann responds.

Swann believes the suspect has been smoking marijuana within the past 90 minutes.

Officers currently have no portable device that can immediately detect marijuana in a driver’s system. This suspect will be taken to the police station. where a more complete analysis can be done.

“We don’t have a lot of cases where it’s just something other than alcohol and that may be because the officers realize the difficulty in proceeding on it, difficulty in proving anything,” says Newton County Prosecuting Attorney Jake Scouby.

Unlike with alcohol, there is no legally established level of marijuana at which a person is presumed to be impaired in Missouri. Scouby would like to see a legal standard establishing marijuana intoxication.

Without it, Scouby says it might be harder to convince jurors in some marijuana cases that a driver has crossed a legal line.

Obviously, that’s going to be an issue with some jurors,” Scouby says. “…because the person presumably is going to be sober when they come to court.”

The handcuffed suspect sits in a patrol car, while officers search his pickup. They pull a canister from a center console. When they open the lid, they release the strong odor of the marijuana buds packed inside.

A little bit of weed will get you really high today. It used to take a lot to get you high,” Swann says. “That’s more than a little bit. For sure.”

Swann says he wishes every night that he had no reason to arrest anyone. But over the years he’s arrested hundreds of suspected intoxicated drivers. It’s common for Swann’s evenings to end as this one will — processing paperwork, with a suspect at the station.

“At least you know you’ve done your job for the night,” Swann says. “…and you’ve kept whoever was going to be in their path safe.”