In the run-up to the 2016 referendum that legalized recreational marijuana in Maine, police groups warned of a host of dangers that would accompany legal pot.

Now one year after the first legal buds went on sale, public officials say some indicators are flashing red, but they have to do more to determine how much their fears were justified.

Reports of children ingesting confections laced with THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, have risen steadily since 2018. So have the number of cases in which drivers suspected of being impaired have been found to have THC or its byproducts in their blood.

But drawing hard conclusions about legalization’s effects is stymied by a lack of good statewide data.

Some court information systems in Maine are not linked and have yet to be fully computerized, making research difficult. Police do not collect much information on marijuana-related incidents. And some forms of drug testing and data gathering have been abandoned due to logistical problems or high costs.

When someone dies in a crash behind the wheel in Maine, for instance, police always test for alcohol, but only run a drug screening if they see indications that the driver may have been high.

“We have very limited drug data for fatal crashes for various reasons, including that not all deceased drivers are tested for drugs, just alcohol,” said Lauren Stewart, director of the Bureau of Highway Safety. “Drug panels are very expensive.”

LIMITED DRUG SCREENINGS

Police can charge someone with impaired driving for alcohol, drugs or both. But they sometimes skip the drug component if they have enough evidence to prove someone was over the legal limit for alcohol because it’s a simpler, faster test. And the court’s record keeping makes it nearly impossible to break down statistics when people are charged with drug-related OUIs.

Police or prosecutors would have to comb through thousands of police reports by hand to count which drugs were connected to each OUI case.

“That’s the problem, we’re not tracking specifics,” said Jared Mills, chief of the Augusta police and president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. “The problem is when we do a drug-type of OUI, basically we’re not tracking exactly what the drug was.”

Bringing OUI cases involving drugs also can be more complicated. Police departments rely on drug recognition experts, officers trained to ascertain when someone is under the influence of substances other than alcohol or of a combination of alcohol and drugs. The process is not always reliable, and is far more nuanced than using a calibrated device to measure alcohol in someone’s bloodstream.

There also is no reliable rapid roadside test for marijuana intoxication, and examinations by the experts take a couple of hours, while breath tests for alcohol take about 30 minutes.

In the cases where drivers consented to a blood test after a drug recognition expert’s evaluation, the percentage with positive tests for marijuana has steadily increased, according to Bureau of Highway Safety statistics.

In 2018, of 788 blood tests, 31 percent came back positive for pot. In 2019, it was 37 percent of 763 tests. In 2020, there were 646 evaluations and 55 percent came back positive. And so far in 2021, half of the 421 samples tested have been positive for marijuana or its metabolized byproducts.

Marijuana or its metabolized byproducts were the two most frequently detected substances in 2020, followed by fentanyl and a fentanyl byproduct.

MORE TRACKING TO BEGIN

In the coming weeks, a committee of police and prosecutors convened by the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy will ask every police agency in the state to begin tracking more information when officers encounter products containing marijuana or people who have ingested them, even when the interaction doesn’t result in a drug-related offense, said John Kilbride, chief of the Falmouth police and chair of the OMP committee.

“We really don’t know if we have a problem unless we have data that identifies a problem,” Kilbride said.

About 80 percent of the roughly 146 police agencies in Maine use one of two software packages to track calls, process police reports and organize cases, and Kilbride’s team expects to send out instructions on how to modify that software so officers can record when someone they interact with admits to having smoked or ingested marijuana.

“That can be anything related to criminal mischief, domestics – the officer will now be able to check a box and say what type of cannabis use they encountered,” Kilbride said.

In Falmouth, there has been an increase in crashes involving alcohol, drugs or both, but untangling what drugs were present in each crash is not always clear, Kilbride said. Sometimes a driver will refuse a blood test. In other cases, police charge a straight alcohol-related OUI if they have a breath test that shows more than 0.08, the legal limit, although police may suspect the driver also was high.

So far in 2021, Falmouth police have record 13 crashes that involved a combination of alcohol and drugs, up from six in 2018, although it’s unclear how many involved marijuana.

Kilbride said his department also has cut down on the use of urine tests. The state lab, he said, is so backed up that relying on it has become unworkable. When the department decides to test a urine sample, it now sends it out and pays $400 to a lab in Pennsylvania.

CALLS TO POISON CENTER UP

Data does exist to show that accidental ingestion and “overdoses” of marijuana products are on the rise. Calls from Maine households to the Northern New England Poison Center have increased steadily, from 33 in 2016 to 81 so far in 2021.

The sharpest rise concerned cases of children and teens 19 or younger, most of whom ingested marijuana edibles. Five years ago, the poison center got a dozen calls about such incidents; so far this year, 57.

Marijuana edibles such as gummy candies, brownies and soda can look and taste like their drug-free counterparts while delivering mega doses of THC.

Typical suggested dosages range from 5 to 50 milligrams, depending on the strain of marijuana used to make the edible and the effects sought by the user. With more edible products for sale and in homes, some children have reportedly consumed dozens of times the recommended amount.

“We’ve seen cases where children had several hundred milligrams and have had some pretty serious effects,” said Victoria Frankl, a registered nurse and one of about 15 specialists who staff the hotline. “There’s been cases of children having seizures. We’ve had cases where a child has needed a ventilator to help them breathe while the effects of the drug wears off.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.