The Day – Police trained on new marijuana laws

With the recent legalization of cannabis in Connecticut, state and local police are learning how to adapt to the new law and procedures surrounding the once illegal substance.

The Police Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, which oversees training of officers in the state, issued a bulletin to all departments that summarized what’s new now that Gov. Ned Lamont has signed into law the bill that legalizes marijuana.

One significant change is that police officers are no longer permitted to pull over a vehicle based solely on the odor of cannabis. Though it’s still illegal for people to be using marijuana while driving, police no longer have probable cause to check if someone is driving under the influence based only on the fact that they smell the substance.

Chief John Rich of the Ledyard Police Department said this part of the law is a bit confusing and he’s working with his officers to make sure they understand it.

“That’s one area that’s a little bit concerning. You’re not supposed to be driving around and smoking marijuana, yet the odor of burning marijuana is not probable cause for a stoppable offense,” he explained. “But if you see a person using marijuana while driving, that’s illegal. That’s where we come into a kind of a gray area.”

Ledyard officers underwent training right away after the law was signed and were provided with a training bulletin that they were required to read and sign off on. The department posted additional training materials in its public share system, so that officers “have a quick guide for whatever situation they should run into out there in the field,” Rich said.

Connecticut State Police said they will still be making a concerted effort to keep impaired drivers off the road.

“With the legalization of marijuana, our troopers will continue to be on the lookout for those motor vehicle operators who may be driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol,” spokesperson Trooper 1st Class Pedro A. Muñiz said.

All departments also were required this past month to report to the council that they have a minimum number of officers accredited as drug recognition experts, or DRE — specifically trained to identify people impaired by drugs — to respond to calls that involve potentially impaired drivers.

Muñiz said troopers are trained to detect drivers who are under the influence and conduct side-of-the-road sobriety tests. With the legalization of cannabis, state police are prioritizing additional training and resources to onboard even more DRE officers.

In Waterford, DRE training has always been a priority and Lt. Marc Balestracci said department staff members have been preparing for the changes in the new law “for some time, actually.”

“For years, we have been hosting weeklong impaired driving courses. Not only do we send all our officers through them, but we host departments from across the state, as well,” he said. The department also has three state-certified impaired driving instructors, who he said have mastered their skills in detecting impaired drivers and administering field sobriety tests, who help to ensure that all officers are trained properly.

The department also has three DREs, who respond to impaired driving arrests in Waterford as well as elsewhere in the county, if needed. Balestracci said officers are trained to look for specific indicators that might signify drug use when they’re interacting with or observing a driver.

Waterford also hosts two-day advance roadside impaired driving enforcement training, a national program that he said focuses mainly on drugged driving. All Waterford officers attend this program, which has a section focused specifically on cannabis influence.

The new law includes many other changes that impact law enforcement, including where cannabis use is allowed.

Though people are now allowed to smoke cannabis legally, that activity is still prohibited in many locations, including any state or political buildings, health care facilities, restaurants, schools, elevators and correctional facilities.

The law includes instructions for officers to now issue written warnings to juveniles who commit their first offense of possession of less than 5 ounces of marijuana. It also requires that people ages 18 to 20 found to be in possession of less than 5 ounces to sign a health statement confirming they’ve received literature about the potential risks of marijuana use in that age range. They’ll also be issued a $50 fine for their first offense and a $150 for their second.

Rich said the new statewide practice of providing informational statements is similar to what Ledyard police already try to do in their community: educate the public.

New London police, along with all other law enforcement agencies in the state, will be adapting to the new law. Chief Brian Wright said officers have been given training bulletins and will receive guidance on interpreting the law.

“We continue to absorb the highly detailed 295 pages of new legislation and will address any issues as they become evident in the most professional and practical manner,” he said.

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