Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 | 3:46 p.m.
Beyond the Sun
The federal drug czar visited Las Vegas on Wednesday in an effort to raise awareness about drugged driving.
Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, joined local officials for a news conference at the Nevada Highway Patrol’s Southern Command, 4615 W. Sunset Road.
While the number of people driving under the influence of alcohol has declined in the last 30 years, Kerlikowske said, the number of people driving under the influence of drugs, both illegal and prescription, has gone up.
“Over the years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of drugged drivers on our roads and highways commensurate with the substance abuse problems we have in our communities, including not only illicit drugs but prescription narcotics,” said Nevada Department of Public Safety Director Jerry Hafen.
A Sun analysis of prescription narcotic consumption across the country between 1997 and 2006 revealed that Nevadans consume about twice the national average per capita of prescription narcotics.
According to a recent study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 16 percent of drivers on weekend nights tested positive for drugs.
While that does not mean all of those drivers were impaired, more than 11 percent of the drivers tested positive for illicit drugs, five times as many as those who tested positive for alcohol.
“This should be a national wake up call,” Kerlikowske said. “Given the impact and the success that we’ve had … on alcohol-impaired driving, we should be able to devote the same level of attention and resources (to drugged driving).”
Other speakers at the event agreed that it was time to focus on decreasing the number of those driving under the influence of drugs.
“The good news is that we’re not waiting for drugged driving to claim 28,000 lives and injure a million others before taking action,” said Sandy Heverly, executive director of STOP DUI. “Yes, it took 28,000 deaths and a million injured before our country woke up to the dangers of drinking and driving.”
Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said seeing a drop in drugged driving is just as important lowering the numbers for drunken driving.
“It doesn’t get as much recognition as when we talk about alcohol abuse and alcohol-impaired driving, but with the statistics we have and the use and the abuse of drugs in this state, there is always a concern that people are going to be abusing drugs and then out on our roadways,” she said.
“We can not relax our efforts to combat impaired driving whether it stems from alcohol abuse or drug abuse. We need to apply the same educational enforcement measures we put into place for drunk driving to address drugged driving.”
Hafen said that the state has made improvements in enforcing DUI laws.
In 2006, law enforcement agencies in the state had 82 officers certified as drug recognition experts. Now, there are 247 in the state, an increase of 300 percent in three years.
While in the Las Vegas Valley, Kerlikowske also planned to visit a drug court session and a victim impact panel held by STOP DUI where DUI victims speak to DUI offenders about the influence impaired driving has on others.