Drugged driving deaths up in Iowa after nearby states legalize marijuana

ANAMOSA, Iowa (KCRG) -- The Iowa State Patrol thinks eastern Iowa has a drug problem that's only getting worse.

"It is harder to detect and it is a concern we're looking at," said Iowa State Patrol Trooper Bob Conrad.

Conrad suspects the source could be Iowa's neighbors.

"We see more drugs coming in from Colorado. For example, since Colorado legalized some years ago, we have some coming in from Colorado through the state. Maybe not stopping here but traveling through," said Conrad.

Marijuana isn't the only issue on Iowa roads, though. Illicit pill use is on the rise, too.

"People have drugs that are not theirs," said Conrad. "They have obtained them illegally. Those drugs cause problems and we are seeing an abuse with legal prescription drugs as well."

It's something authorities worry will continue going up as more states legalize. Iowa State Patrol reports 40 people died in drug-related crashes in 2017. In 2014, when Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana, 22 people died.

As the national perception continues to change, the job of deputies like Smith is becoming increasingly important to keep Iowa's roads safe.

"I believe on the nationwide stance that there's now ten states that have adopted a recreational use," said Jones County Sheriff's Deputy Tim Smith. "I believe 32 states that have recreational or some type of medical use laws in effect. That perception across the nation is affecting us here at home."

Smith is a drug-recognition expert. He gets called in after an officer stops someone who's passed a breathalyzer, but still has signs of being impaired.

"Sometimes it's for a medical impairment, maybe it's a combination of alcohol and drugs or maybe multiple categories of drugs," said Smith.

Smith uses a list of techniques to determine if someone is abusing drugs, like marijuana. He checks a person's eyes in different light conditions, their heart rate and even a person's hands with a black light: searching for drug residue.

"I believe because it's so highly politicized that there is the perception of the public that maybe Iowa is going to be on-board for recreational use for some type of legalized marijuana and maybe there's this perspective of it becoming more socially acceptable," said Smith.

While marijuana and pills are a problem, drunk driving is still one of the biggest issues for law enforcement across Iowa. Between 2014 and 2017 alone, more than 370 people died in alcohol-related crashes.