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Blood testing for 'drugged drivers' coming to Maine

PORTLAND (WGME) -- The state of Maine will soon have a new tool to gather better evidence for convicting drivers on Operating Under the Influence charges involving drugs.

The Bureau of Highway Safety purchased equipment that will finally allow the state to conduct drug tests on blood samples. Until now, the equipment housed at the Department of Health and Human Services Health and Environmental Testing Lab could only perform drug tests on urine samples. The lab does have blood testing equipment to check for alcohol in a person's system, but not drugs.

Right now, if prosecutors want a suspect's blood tested for drugs, they have to send it to a lab in Maryland, costing Maine thousands of tax dollars.

"This is going to be huge," said Rockland Police Sgt. Don Finnegan.

Finnegan is one of Maine's 76 trained Drug Recognition Experts. He says "drugged driving" is their new battle, and while they've seen a steady decrease in drunk driving, he says drugged driving is becoming more common.

"Everyone knows 'don't drink and drive,' however the people who are going to do it anyway are going away from alcohol and choosing drugs instead," Finnegan said.

"We rarely just see one drug (in someone's system)."

Finnegan showed CBS 13 the results of a urine sample from one of his recent OUI cases. It revealed the driver had nine drugs in her system, including THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and morphine, used in certain painkillers and heroin.

"It is a smorgasbord," said Finnegan.

Unlike alcohol, where the legal limit to drive is a blood-alcohol content of .08, there is no legal limit for driving drugged. Maine State Law says you only have to be "impaired to the slightest degree."

Finnegan says the new blood-testing equipment will give them better evidence to convict drugged drivers.

"If it's in your blood, it's in your brain. So that's better evidence showing the person is impaired, the drug was actually there, psychoactive in their system."

Lauren Stewart, director of the Bureau of Highway Safety, says employees at the lab still have to be trained on the equipment and hopes it is operational by the summer.

One other resource coming to Maine to help keep dangerous drivers off the roads is a traffic safety resource prosecutor. Finnegan says that person will help the Attorney General's Office and the assistant district attorneys prosecute traffic cases, with impaired driving at the top of the priority list.