PHOENIX - Department of Public Safety toxicology records reveal prescription drugs are appearing more often in the blood and urine tests of individuals who have been pulled over or arrested in Arizona and suspected of DUI.
During the year 2011, Alprazolam (Xanax), Oxycodone (Percocet/Oxycontin), Morphine, and Meprobomate (Soma/Miltown) turned up the most often, according to Department of Public Safety toxicology results .
The other most prevalent drugs include: Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Clonazepam (Klonopin), Diazepam (Valium), Zolpidem (Ambien), Lorazepam (Ativan), and Methadone. Between 2010 and 2011, occurrences of Clonazepam increased by 154 percent, the largest increase of any of the top 10 drugs.
Determining whether the drugs have caused the driver to be impaired, however, is a difficult issue to prove, according to law enforcement and pharmacy experts.
In Arizona, someone is considered to be impaired when they have a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.08. Nationally, there is no similar impairment standard for prescription drugs.
A DEADLY CRASH
Kim Saks knows how difficult proving impairment can be. For years, the Chandler mother of two young children has been questioning whether the driver who struck and killed her bicyclist husband in 2008 was impaired due to the Zolpidem (Ambien) and Sertraline (Zoloft) he had consumed.
Zolpidem is a sleeping medication, and Sertraline is an antidepressant. Both can affect a person’s mood and alertness, according to Dr. Melinda Burnworth, an Associate Pharmacy Professor at Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz.
“I needed an explanation for this. There was no explanation that made any sense to me,” Kim Saks said.
Her husband, Brett Saks, a Chandler doctor who practiced holistic medicine, had been training for a charity bicycle ride, for which he raised $10,000, when he was struck from behind and killed on State Route 87 in Pinal County.
“He was very special, and I miss him every day,” Kim Saks said. “It doesn’t seem possible that he’s not going to walk through that door and pick up his kids.”
The driver received a traffic ticket for “overtaking bicycles – death to another”, according to the citation, and paid more than $1,000 in fines.
According to the official police report from the Department of Public Safety, the police officers who handled the investigation indicated they did not see any signs of physical impairment at the scene or during the interview with the driver.
“(The driver) stated he did take prescription medications for high blood pressure, and anti-inflammatory,” the report said. “A vehicle search revealed an empty bottle of Diovan 320m. There were no other prescription medications or illegal drugs found in the vehicle,” the report continued.
The ABC15 Investigators have learned none of the officers who handled the case had specialized training to detect prescription drug impairment.
The training is now required of all DPS patrol officers.
DPS is also considering a policy that would require Drug Recognition Experts – officers who’ve undergone an intense, two-week training – to evaluate the driver at the scene of any traffic fatality or serious injury wreck.
THE BLOOD TEST
In February 2009, blood tests revealed the driver had Zolpidem (Ambien), and Sertraline (Zoloft) in his system, but the Pinal County Attorney’s Office requested additional testing at a private laboratory.
Months later, the results revealed the quantities of prescription drugs in the driver’s system: 50ng/ml of Zolpidem and 85ng/ml of Sertraline.
For an entire year after the results were made available, nothing happened with the case.
Ultimately, the Pinal County Attorney declined to prosecute the felony manslaughter case.
The Pinal County Attorney refused to speak to the ABC15 Investigators about the case on camera.
“It is my understanding that we did not have enough evidence to charge a DUI,” said Kostas Kalaitzidis, the public information officer for the Pinal County Attorney.
“(The driver) did not appear impaired,” he said. “I need to make it very clear that the presence of legal drugs does not constitute a DUI, whereas the presence of illegal drugs does,” he said.
“To not be held accountable for it is just another slap in the case,” Kim Saks said.
She is now pursuing a civil case against the driver.
After the ABC15 Investigators started asking questions, Kalaitzidis indicated someone at the attorney’s office requested more details about the case.
“We requested additional information from the private lab and looked at deposition testimony from the civil proceedings initiated by the Saks family against (the driver). We concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support criminal prosecution,” he said.
He did not explain what additional information the office requested.
PRESCRIPTION DRUG EFFECTS
The ABC15 Investigators asked two pharmacy experts at Midwestern University in Glendale to evaluate the blood tests