Law enforcement in Minnesota has long been responsible for taking drivers off the road when they are impaired by substances. Lately, some officers have been noting an increase in the number of drivers impaired by substances other than alcohol.

That may be in part due to an increase in training to detect these substances.

Cass County has not noted much change in the number of DUI charges per year; however, the county has noted a slight change in substances found in DUI suspects.

“DWI arrests seem to be kind of level compared to last year,” Sheriff Tom Burch said. “We have seen an increase in controlled substance related driving arrests as opposed to alcohol.”

This change in substances has changed the way law enforcement trains.

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“Officers are now being trained differently in field sobriety and drug recognition,” Burch said. “That enables us to detect those more so than the traditional training.”

Suspects appear to be abusing both illegal controlled substances and prescribed substances.

“I do know that there's people using meth or other things that have admitted to smoking meth the day before they get picked up for a DUI,” Burch said. “But there is also a fair amount of people that are using prescription medication as a contributing factor.”

The primary substances being found include methamphetamine, marijuana and prescription drugs.

Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard said methamphetamine remains the largest issue for law enforcement, not strictly in terms of driving under the influence either.

“Methamphetamine continues to be the biggest problem that we see for scheduled narcotics violations,” Goddard said. “Marijuana always has been, and continues to be, very prevalent throughout our area, but we don't see the numbers with the opioids as we do with methamphetamine. The biggest problems we are facing are truly with methamphetamine.”

Goddard cited a shift in how DUIs are interpreted by the general public, which he views as “a good sign.”

“Look at the number of shuttle buses we have throughout our neighborhoods,” Goddard said. “They are all being serviced by the shuttles, where people get transportation to and from the bars, and people are using them.”

In an Ask the Trooper column, Sgt. Neil Dickenson, with the Minnesota State Patrol, said that while alcohol-related DWI incidents have dropped over the past 10 years in Minnesota, controlled substance-related DWI incidents have increased over the past 30 years. He shared the following statistics for controlled substance convictions:

  • 1990: 5 controlled substance-related DWIs.

  • 1997: 128.

  • 2007: 659.

  • 2017: 1,982.

“We believe that most drivers know when to get a sober ride when they had consumed too many alcoholic beverages. Illicit and some prescription drugs can affect our ability to safely operate a vehicle, even if taken as directed. The term ‘controlled substances’ refers to both of these categories, and part of the rise of drug-related DWIs is due to their increased use,” Dickenson wrote.

He agreed with Burch that another factor for the increase in controlled substance arrests is that law enforcement officers are better trained in DWI detection, especially with non-alcohol related DWI offenders.

Dickenson shared tips for motorists who take prescription medications:

  • If you don’t yet know how a medication will affect your judgment, coordination and reaction time, either have someone else drive or wait to take it until after you get home.

  • Check the warning labels carefully. Does it have one about “operating heavy machinery?” That includes motor vehicles.

  • Some medications are fine on their own, but can impair you when mixed with other medications or alcohol - even a small amount. Learn about the interactions and talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

Take the proper precautions, Dickenson wrote, and remember: If you feel different, you drive different.

Area cities

These changes may be more noticeable in larger jurisdictions as compared to smaller area cities.

“It varies here,” said Pine River Police Chief Paul Sand. “We'll have a spurt with a few DUIs, then we won't have any for a while.”

Nisswa Police Chief Craig Taylor said his city has seen an increase in alcohol-related DWIs and other activity, but he attributes it to his officers working harder at enforcement and not a change in people’s behavior.

In Pequot Lakes and Crosslake, DWIs dropped and are now plateauing.

“We started seeing a decline in DWI arrests when the shuttle bus started,” Crosslake Police Chief Erik Lee said, noting DWIs have remained consistent at 25-30 per year compared to 40-plus per year before the shuttle service started.

People are also becoming more responsible and leaving their cars in parking lots overnight, opting for a safer ride home if they’ve had too much to drink, he said.

Lee did say his department has seen more controlled substance arrests, whether from prescribed or illegal drugs. While officers are seeing a lot of marijuana in the area, they aren’t seeing an increase in marijuana-related DWI arrests.

“Half the people we’re arresting for alcohol DWIs are probably smoking marijuana too,” he said.

Pequot Lakes Police Chief Eric Klang said his officers are picking up a lot more people who are using mairjuana, as well as methamphetamine and opioids.

“There’s a lot more uptick in the use of marijuana,” he said.

DWI numbers in 2019 were similar to past years in Breezy Point, but Police Chief Kevin Merschman also believes marijuana arrests are “ticking up somewhat” because it has become more socially acceptable to use the drug, with people “minimizing its effects.”

“I think part of it is that law enforcement is getting better at detecting impaired drivers using drugs,” Merschman said. “There has been a lot of training done to better detect things other than just alcohol, and cops are getting better at looking harder for impairment other than smelling alcohol … With drugs, you have to look a little closer for other indicators.”

Merschman also said that, in many cases, a combination of drugs is in an arrested individual’s system.

“Anything you take that has a mind-altering substance is going to affect you - whether it’s caffeine or marijuana - and it will have an effect on your ability to drive,” Merschman said.

He also felt an uptick in arrests involving things other than alcohol stems from drinking and driving becoming more taboo in recent years.

“Alcohol consumption has changed dramatically in the last 15 years,” Merschman said. “It was much more acceptable to drink and drive back then than it is now. I think law enforcement in general really picked up on impaired driving about 15 years ago.”

Klang agreed, attributing a drop in DWIs to people being more responsible than in the past.

“Younger kids are just smarter. They get rides. They get designated drivers when they go out. They’re a lot more responsible when it comes to that,” Klang said, adding it’s no longer socially acceptable to drive drunk.

Klang also credited the Brainerd lakes area Toward Zero Death campaign for getting the word out that driving while impaired isn’t acceptable, as well as to lakes area communities investing money in their law enforcement agencies to keep residents and tourists safe.