Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

March 2, 2013

Bill hopes to drug test teens getting license

PRINCETON — Three Mercer County delegates are co-sponsoring a bill requiring juveniles to undergo a drug test in order to attain their driver’s license.

Delegate Dr. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, is the lead sponsor of House Bill 2528, which would require any person under the age of 18 to pass a drug test in order to earn their driver’s license. Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, and Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, are among the bill’s cosponsors.

“The big purpose of this is to deter teens from starting drugs,” Ellington said. “If you look at the numbers in behavioral medicine, about 5 percent of the 12 to 17 age group admitted to using illegal drugs. In the 18 to 25 group, this jumps up to 25 percent. We have a big problem with prescription pills and drugs in the southern part of the state and drivers’ licenses are a big motivator for teens. We feel the peer pressure to get your driver’s license is bigger than pressure to do drugs. This may also get them to an age where they are older and more mature and can decide to stay away from drugs.”

Gearheart said the bill is currently before the House Committee on Road and Transportation, where he serves as minority vice chair. Gearheart said the bill is another tool to combat drug abuse, particularly among youth.

“We are attacking drug use anyway we can find to attack it,” Gearheart said. “When anything that starts when you are young has a tendency to become more prevalent when you are older. This is sort of the carrot and stick thing. Most teens don’t look forward to anything more than they look forward to getting their driver’s license. If testing positive means they can’t get that license, they won’t want to test positive. This is for the graduated driver’s license. In West Virginia when you are a new driver you have limitations on your driver’s license, which are removed as you become an adult. We are talking about new drivers.”

Gearheart said he feels the longer youngsters can be kept off drugs the less likely they will be to develop drug habits.

“The idea is the longer our young people can stay clean, the more likely they will stay clean as adults,” he said. “We don’t want any drivers on the road doing drugs, but we especially want to keep our young people clean. I think we will probably increase the number of individuals who stay clean by doing this. There are not currently any similar bills for adults. That hasn’t really been considered. This also gives parents the opportunity to know if their minor child is doing drugs, which they might not have known otherwise.”

Shott said many youngsters become addicted to illegal substances before they realize the consequences of their actions.

“The primary purpose is just one way to attack the drug problem,” he said. “With the importance a driver’s license has to everyone but especially to those in high school, this will be an additional deterrent to starting a drug habit or drug usage. Hopefully, this will deter people from starting as they sometimes start before they have the ability to think through the consequences. We want to deter it before they start a drug habit and realize the mistake of starting that habit.”

Shott said there would be allowances if a prescribed medication appears on the drug test.

“It certainly could happen that a person had a legitimate reason, such as an injury,” he said. “They could bring a prescription or doctor’s note, which would not disqualify him or her from getting their license.”

Ellington said lawmakers are currently discussing certain aspects of the proposed bill including if it would be the responsibility of the Division of Motor Vehicles or a family physician to administer the drug test.

“(The test) could be a simple saliva or urine test,” Ellington said. “We are debating where the test would be done. The DMV would prefer if the screening was already filled out by a physician so they (the DMV) only have to record it, but that might cause extra expense to a family. We could hire someone at the DMV to do these urine or saliva tests, but the DMV doesn’t want to get into that.”

Ellington said between $5 and $10 could be added to existing fees to cover the cost of drug tests. The state presently charges $5 for a driver’s permit, $5 for an intermediate driver’s license, and $2.50 for a level three full class E license.

Penalties for violating the law are also still being discussed, Ellington said.

“There are no penalties written into it now, but most likely this will delay the time they get their license rather than being reported to the authorities,” he said. “Our goal is not the penalize them but make them responsible on the road. We are working on the total drug picture and this is part of this. We want to keep them off drugs, keep them in school, and get them into the workforce to be productive members of society. A lot of parents I have talked to really like the idea. A lot of teens don’t, but the parents seem to. If the kid doesn’t want to go for their driver’s license it might be a red flag to the parents.”

West Virginia currently has a “zero tolerance” policy for drivers under the age of 18 who are driving under the influence of alcohol. The West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles also reserves the right to deny a license to any “habitual user of alcoholic beverages or is addicted to the use of narcotic drugs.”

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com

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