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Police Challenged by Crashes Involving Prescription Drugs

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Car crashes involving prescription drugs are often harder to detect and prosecute than those involving alcohol or illicit drugs, the New York Times reported July 25.

Drunk-driving crashes are declining, but law-enforcement officials say that more people are being charged with driving under the influence of prescription drugs. However, unlike with alcohol, there’s no standard for intoxication for prescription painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, and other legal drugs. Also, taking such drugs (alone or in combination with other substances or alcohol) has widely different effects on different people — all of which makes prosecuting such offenses harder.

“How do we balance between people who legitimately need their prescriptions and protecting the public?” said Mark Neil of the National Traffic Law Center. “It becomes a very delicate balance.”

Blood-alcohol content is the standard to measure drunk driving, and some states have made any detectable level of illicit drugs the presumption for intoxication. But that won’t work for prescription drugs, which are legal.

Police departments are training officers to detect impairment by prescription drugs, and experts said that prevention and education also must play a role. “We have a pretty clear message in this country that you don’t drink and drive,” said U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. “We need very much to have a similar message when it comes to drugs.”

In court, people accused of driving under the influence of prescription drugs often claim they didn’t realize they were impaired. Prosecutors counter that such drugs have warning labels that should be heeded, but juries often sympathize with the drivers.

“Because most people on the jury will also likely be taking prescription drugs for some ailment, whether it’s Lipitor or allergy pills or whatever it might be, they might think, ’I don’t want that to become criminal,’” said Maryland attorney general Douglas Gansler.

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