Prosecuting drivers under the influence of synthetic cannabinoid products, or spice, is proving a challenge because changes in the drug are outpacing the crime lab’s ability to test for it.
“It is a pretty new phenomenon,” said Richmond County sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Whitehead, a supervisor on the department’s DUI task force. “But now we are seeing it become a real problem.”
Whitehead said spice has an effect on drivers almost identical to marijuana. The slowed reaction time and general lack of awareness make driving dangerous, but getting users off the street through court cases is difficult because of lack of proof.
Spice is a chemical drug that is constantly evolving, Whitehead said. Every time one version becomes illegal, producers alter it slightly, making it legal again. The changes make testing for the drug moot.
In February, the Drug Enforcement Agency extended a temporary order that makes five of the chemicals used to produce spice illegal through Aug. 29.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said state law makes about 90 percent of synthetic cannabinoid products illegal. In mid-April, Fort Gordon authorities banned Trip 3 Smoke Shop in Augusta after military police said they received complaints that the store on Wrightsboro Road was selling spice to soldiers.
When a driver is tested for drugs during a DUI arrest, Richmond County sheriff’s deputies send the sample to the GBI lab to be tested. However, they have to mark on the sample what they are testing for, and since spice’s effect is so close to marijuana’s, authorities sometimes look for the wrong drug.
Currently, the GBI can test for some versions of spice and are expanding testing capabilities, Bankhead said. He could not say how many of the drug’s varieties the agency is able to test for because there are so many versions.
Without definitive proof, successfully prosecuting a spice DUI comes down to the arresting officer’s testimony, training and video of the traffic stop. Augusta Solicitor General Charles Evans said the state uses everything at its disposal, from the arresting officer to video and witnesses.
“The state would use all evidence, including physical manifestation of intoxication, to prove our case,” he said.
Richmond County relies on its Drug Recognition Experts, or DRE officers. It has two and is working to train a third.
“These officers have been through rigorous training,” Whitehead said. “They go through refresher courses. They know the latest drugs and the signs of them.”
Whitehead said the sheriff’s office has successfully prosecuted with deputy testimony.
On any DUI arrest, the driver can refuse all testing. Even if the driver consents, however, the lack of definitive testing for spice likely means negative test results, giving defense attorneys the opportunity to use a clean report as evidence of their clients’ sobriety.
Whitehead said the bottom line is getting dangerous drivers off the roads. Deputies aggressively document and pursue all drug DUI cases.
“We have to educate the community about the dangers of driving on these drugs,” he said. “That’s our job, to keep the roads safe.”