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Marijuana and driving: Here's how DUI enforcement will look in Virginia, according to Chesapeake Police Department

It remains illegal for passengers to use marijuana, even if someone else is operating the motor vehicle.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Despite all the changes marijuana legalization brought to Virginia, one change that won't be taking place is the rules of the road. 

On July 1, Virginians over the age of 21 years old could legally possess and consume marijuana, but many aspects of the drug remain illegal like consumption either operating or riding along as a passenger in a motor vehicle. 

As it pertains to enforcing possible impairment on Virginia's roadways, what exactly will law enforcement agencies be looking for now that the new laws have taken effect?

"I guess I have a work passion, and my work passion is removing impaired drivers from the roadways," said Sgt. Kenneth Byrd, a nearly-decade long veteran on with the Chesapeake Police Department.

Sgt. Byrd specializes in impaired driving and sat down with 13News Now to discuss how the new laws change how officers across the state will treat driving under the influence of marijuana. 

Driving patterns and reactions

"Stopping way shy of the stop bar or well beyond the stop bar, makes me think 'That's weird,' and draws my attention to that."

Sgt. Byrd said that while there are similarities between how alcohol and marijuana affect the body, there are also differences more distinct to marijuana consumption. 

"Slowed reaction time is in the middle of that Venn diagram; alcohol slows down your reaction time and cannabis slows down your inhibitions as well. Weaving is more along the lines of alcohol, but depth perception with the stop bar is on the cannabis side of things ... cannabis alters your perception of time and distance."

Sgt. Byrd said that he doesn't determine what kind of substance he believes a driver to be under until he makes contact with the car. If he has reason to suspect the driver is driving impaired, when it comes to cannabis, he'll employ similar tests to that of testing for alcohol, determining physical responses to both balance and attention. 

"Convergence is the ability to cross your eyes, and cannabis alters that. To how each person alters it is different."

He also employs a test by asking drivers to close their eyes and think for 30 seconds. If their guesses are significantly off from real-time, he says it indicates marijuana could be altering the person's internal clock. 

"I can’t say, 'Blow into this' and provide me with whatever number of impairment will be," saying the technology doesn't exist to determine marijuana impairment like that of alcohol and a breathalyzer. 

What if an officer smells weed?

Virginia lawmakers passed legislation in 2020 that prohibits law enforcement officers from search and seizure practices based solely on the odor of marijuana. Legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana applies to cars as well, as long as it is not in an open container. 

Sgt. Byrd said that when it comes to the smell of marijuana, he doesn't take into account the smell of "fresh" marijuana during a stop. 

“Marijuana is distinctively different between fresh and burnt odor. If I go up to a car and smell a fresh odor, I’m not going to think twice about it, but in years past I had a job to enforce. Absent of being an open container I'm not thinking twice about it, but burnt marijuana will trigger questions: 'When’s the last time you smoked, how much did you smoke?'"

Sgt. Byrd said that the smell of "burnt" marijuana is a potential indicator that someone consumed marijuana and is operating the vehicle. 

“Similar to, 'When was your last drink? How much did you drink?’ My goal is not to take you to jail, it’s if you’ve consumed: whether you’re impaired. Because there is a difference. Having a beer means you’ve consumed a beer, but doesn’t mean you’re driving impaired. The same thought process with cannabis: it’s legal to smoke marijuana. If you smoke marijuana you’ve consumed it, yes, but whether you’re impaired is a whole different question.”

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