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THE SAFETY ZONE | SPOTLIGHT

A Growing Recipe for Disaster

Prescription drugs are the culprit in as many as 20% of Orange County DUI cases.

July 26, 1999|IOANA PATRINGENARU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arrests of motorists driving under the influence of prescription drugs have been climbing steadily in Orange County, making up as many as 20% of DUI cases, law enforcement officials say.

Powerful muscle relaxants such as Soma or antidepressants like Prozac are often to blame. In some cases, drivers who don't know better mix the medications with alcohol, or ignore warning labels about the potency or dosage of the drug. A smaller number buy the narcotics over the counter in Mexico and use them to enhance the effects of alcohol, law enforcement officials say.

"Typically, people will be self-medicating: 'If one [pill] is good, two is better,' " said Will Funk, a deputy in the traffic division of the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "They don't realize that in this case, one plus one doesn't equal two; the impairment is much higher, especially when alcohol is involved."

Orange County law enforcement agencies keep track of cases involving motorists driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but do not keep track of specific cases involving prescription medication. But police and deputies who patrol the streets confirm that the problem is becoming increasingly common.

Jim Rubio, a drug recognition expert for the Sheriff's Department who works with an enforcement team in Aliso Viejo and patrols Dana Point, estimates that 20% of the DUI cases that occur in Orange County are related to prescription drug use.

There are several factors behind the trend, officials say.

More people are taking powerful medications like Prozac, a drug frequently prescribed to combat depression and other problems. Drivers may limit themselves to one drink but fail to realize that even a single alcoholic beverage can mix with a narcotic and, together, severely impair a motorist's judgment.

The increase in arrests can also be traced to better law enforcement training to detect a driver under the influence of alcohol, prescription drugs, or both.

It wasn't always so.

In years past, if a motorist didn't reek of alcohol or marijuana, or act suspiciously, officers often wouldn't pursue further field tests--such as examining the suspect's eye movement--to determine whether the driver was under the influence of prescription drugs. And when they did, police were largely left with a case built on circumstantial evidence, paving the way for defense attorneys to contest the findings.

Today, one drug recognition expert is always on duty in the sheriff's office to evaluate questionable cases. Experts immediately give suspects who don't have alcohol in their blood a standardized, five-step test consisting of an eye exam and several balance-and-walking tests. Blood tests provide the proof, officials said.

Rubio was one of the first deputies in the Sheriff's Department to participate in a Drug Recognition Expert training program. The department now has 23 certified experts and six instructors. There are similar programs at other local law enforcement agencies, including the Anaheim, Irvine, Brea and Orange police departments.

Rubio has been called to court many times to testify against defendants accused of driving under the influence of prescription drugs.

Earlier this year, for example, his field tests and testimony helped convict a man who refused to take a blood test after he was arrested for driving under the influence of an antidepressant. He also successfully testified in the case of a woman who had been stopped three times for driving while under the influence of Soma, a muscle relaxant.

Soma is the drug most frequently involved in arrests and accidents, followed by Prozac, and then Xanax, which is taken to quell anxiety attacks, officials say. Their effects are even more powerful when combined with alcohol.

"They have a highball at noon and that sets everything off," said Officer Rick Paap, in charge of public relations for the Seal Beach Police Department. There were 12 cases of driving under the influence of prescription drugs in that city this year. "It can't be swept under the carpet," he added.

Reidel Post agrees. As head of the Orange County branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, she says too many motorists are unaware of the effects of medication. She pointed to a 1995 crash in which a young man was killed by a driver who had taken four times the prescribed amount of Xanax.

"People have a tendency to discard the potential dangerous effects when they have a prescription" drug, Post said. "They will try to judge their level of impairment themselves, and it's the same people who take alcohol and drugs; they're not able to do it."

Cases of driving under the influence of prescription drugs involve mostly people between 30 and 50 years old, divided equally between men and women.

But there's another trend that's more worrisome, Rubio said: youths buying antidepressants over the counter in Mexico and using them to enhance the effect of alcohol. "They take two pills and two beers and feel like they've had 24 beers," Rubio said. They can barely drive, but get behind the wheel anyway, he said.

Driving instructor James E. Snelling of Advanced Driving Dynamics, a traffic school for both new and experienced drivers, offers this rule of thumb: Don't drive after taking prescription drugs.

"Don't start driving for five to six hours, until the drug gets out of your system," he added.

Snelling and law enforcement officials urge patients to discuss the effects of drugs with their physicians and pharmacists. They warn against mixing prescription and over-the-counter drugs with alcohol, and suggest that patients carefully read material that comes with their prescriptions.

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