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Back to Archives | Back to October 2003 Contents 

Drug Recognition Experts: A Public Safety Resource

Chuck Hayes, Captain, Patrol Services Division, Oregon State Police, Salem, Oregon


drug recognition experts
he Drug Evaluation Classification (DEC) program, commonly referred to as the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) program, began in the 1970s in Los Angeles, California. It quickly evolved into one of the most successful international programs aimed at deterring drug-impaired driving. The program operates under the guidelines and direction of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and is supported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As of March 2003, 36 states and several countries, including Canada, are involved in the program, and interest is growing in many other states and countries.

The drug recognition expert's main focus is the detection and recognition of drug-impaired drivers. But DREs have used, and continue to use, their specialized training and skills to assist in many other areas of public safety. Many DREs are considered the drug experts in their communities and their agencies.

Since the program's inception with the Los Angeles Police Department, police officers trained as DREs have shown that their drug recognition skills and training help them accurately identify persons impaired by drugs and alcohol.

DRE in Oregon

In 1995 Oregon became the 24th state to enter the DRE program. Positive results were immediate. Drug-impaired-driving arrests in Oregon increased by 150 percent in the first five years; during the same period, drug- and alcohol-related traffic deaths declined. As valuable a tool as the DRE program is for traffic safety, it didn't take long for many law enforcement administrators, prosecutors, and others in public safety to recognize how effectively DREs detect drug-impairment and identify evidence of drug abuse.

In Oregon and many other states, DREs assigned to patrol duties frequently use their training and skills in highway drug interdictions and related criminal investigations. A DRE's ability to recognizes evidence of drug abuse and use helps them establish probable cause for searches that can lead to drug seizures and criminal arrests. In 2002, Oregon DREs conducted 1,245 evaluations on suspected drug-impaired drivers. Seventeen percent of those drivers were also charged with possession of drugs when drugs were located on their person or in their vehicle.

Because of the tendency of drug-impaired drivers to transport and possess illegal drugs, many DREs work closely with their local drug enforcement teams. DREs frequently supply drug enforcement officers with information that helps in major drug investigations.

DRE's Work Leads Investigators to International Drug Operation

Two excellent examples of this partnership occurred in southern Oregon. In one case, a local city police officer stopped a driver for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and determined the driver to be under the influence. After obtaining a .00 percent alcohol breath test, the officer asked a state police DRE to conduct a drug evaluation. The DRE determined that the driver was under the influence of cannabis (marijuana) and a hallucinogen. A postarrest search of the vehicle revealed a small baggy of psilocybin mushrooms.

As part of the evaluation process, the DRE questioned the suspect about his drug use and the drugs located in his vehicle. Based upon the admissions of the suspect, the DRE contacted a local drug enforcement team member who continued the investigation. The detective obtained enough information to obtain a search warrant for a suspected illegal mushroom growing operation in the area. The search warrant resulted in the arrest of two people and the recovery of 63 pounds of psilocybin mushrooms, which is believed to be the largest illegal mushroom growing operation ever discovered in Oregon.

But the investigation did not end in Oregon. Investigators determined that the majority of the illegal mushrooms were being shipped to China for sale and distribution. With the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the investigation resulted in 21 search warrants, 11 arrests, and the recovery of 68 additional pounds of psilocybin mushrooms as well as LSD and bufotenine, a hallucinogen. Investigators also seized $22,000 in cash and five parcels of real estate. This major case was made possible by a drug-impaired-driving arrest and a DRE who was working in partnership with local drug enforcement officers.

DRE Helps Catch Addicted Pharmacist

In another case from southern Oregon, a city police DRE assisted a fellow officer investigate a suspicious activity complaint at a local pharmacy. The complaint alleged that the local pharmacist was injecting intravenous drugs while working at the pharmacy. The complainant had called an investigator at the California Board of Pharmacy, who then asked the local police department to investigate. The DRE responded to the pharmacy and spoke with the pharmacist. The DRE observed evidence consistent with drug influence. A consent search by the officers revealed several unlabeled prescription bottles of vicodin and a fresh injection mark on the inside of the pharmacist's left arm.

With the assistance of the Oregon Board of Pharmacy, it was determined that the pharmacist had written more than 140 false prescriptions for more than 19,000 prescription drugs, including morphine, lorazepam, oxycodone, Xanax, Klonopin, vicodin, and OxyContin. The suspect pleaded guilty to charges of tampering with drug records and possessing a controlled substance.

DRE Partnerships Make Roadways Safer

In an effort to enhance the working partnerships between DREs and local, state, and federal drug investigators, the Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) office sponsored and funded an Oregon DRE school in 2002. DREs trained in the HIDTA-funded school routinely furnish drug evaluation reports to the their local drug teams for follow-up investigations.

This is a practice that has been ongoing in many other states for years. As an example, DREs work closely with narcotic team detectives in California, which has an internal drug possession law. In Livermore, California, about 15 DREs frequently are called upon to assist with knock-and-talk investigations and with the service of drug search warrants. DREs frequently contact people suspected of internal possession and being under the influence. Searches incident to arrest often lead to evidence that assist in conducting the knock-and-talks and obtaining search warrants. Once the search warrant is conducted, DREs help identify drug-impaired suspects while the narcotic team detectives focus on other areas of the investigation.

In the state of Washington, DREs help combat criminal behavior on state and interstate highways while assigned to the Washington State Patrol's Serious Highway Crime Action Team (SHCAT). In a recent case, a SHCAT member stopped a vehicle for speeding and during the contact noted drug-impairment evidence. The driver was subsequently arrested for DWI and a search incident to arrest revealed both marijuana and methamphetamine. A passenger in the vehicle was in possession of methamphetamine. Officers obtained a search warrant locating additional methamphetamine, approximately 30 grams of marijuana, and various chemicals used in the production and distribution of methamphetamine.

In some state departments of transportation (DOT), enforcement members are trained as DREs. This training recently paid off in Iowa, where a DOT-trained DRE stopped a semi truck and noted signs of drug impairment in the driver. A search resulted in the seizure of 12 duffel bags of marijuana. The DEA continued the investigation and arrested three additional persons in Detroit, Michigan, who were linked to the crime.

DREs also work in partnership with DOT commercial vehicle inspectors in Operation Trucker Check projects. The DREs conduct inspections of the commercial vehicle drivers as they enter checkpoints and the vehicle inspectors conduct inspections of the tractor and trailer. During these inspections officers have identified fatigued or impaired drivers and detected equipment, licensing, and logbook violations.

In September 2002 a combined trucker check operation involving DREs and commercial vehicle inspectors from California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia inspected trucks and their drivers during a 48-hour period. Participating agencies included the Oregon State Police, Oregon Department of Transportation Motor Carrier Enforcement Section, the Washington State Patrol's Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Section, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Section. The California Highway Patrol's Motor Carrier Enforcement Division also participated using a statewide inspection effort during the same period.

Officers inspected 3,609 commercial vehicles (tractor-trailers and single-unit trucks) and their drivers during the operation. They declared 918 vehicles and 292 drivers out of service for various violations and issued 2,055 citations, mostly for equipment, logbook, and excessive-hours violations. Six drivers were charged with driving under the influence of drugs. One driver arrested in Oregon was charged with possession of a controlled substance (methamphetamine and marijuana), open container of alcohol, and possession of an illegal weapon after DREs found a radar detector, an open container of alcohol, and two concealed weapons (a modified saw-off shotgun and weighted leather sap.

DREs in Schools

DREs throughout the country are also working closely with their local schools and school districts to deter drug use and abuse in the schools. Many DREs are now training school administrators, teachers, and nurses to identify drug abuse and impairment through the Drug Impairment Training for Educational Professionals (DITEP) program. This training has helped build a solid partnership between law enforcement and schools aimed at reducing drug abuse and related crime in the schools.

The scope of the DRE and the Drug Evaluation Classification programs has expanded greatly since its inception in the 1970s. The improvements and advancement of the program can be directly attributed to the many professionals involved in the program, from the administration at IACP to the technical and financial support at NHTSA to the DREs working the streets. Because of this dedication and support, the DRE program has quickly become a valuable resource for public safety and the communities we serve. ■   

To learn more about the DRE program in your area, call or write to Ernest Floegel, IACP national training coordinator for drug programs (845-226-8058; iacpdre@frontiernet.net), or Chuck Hayes, IACP national coordinator of regional activities (503-585-0055; chayes922@aol.com).

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From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 10, October 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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