Colorado police training

A Colorado state trooper simulates a roadside investigation of a potentially intoxicated driver. Robin Rocke of the Colorado Department of Transportation plays the driver's role and evaluates the trooper's performance. (Brennan Linsley / Associated Press / March 6, 2014)

GOLDEN, Colo. — The instructions seemed simple enough: nine steps forward, heel to toe, a quick turnaround, then nine steps back. But for the guy swaying a bit as he walked, his face slack, his eyes half closed, it was all too much.

He made the nine steps forward and stopped, forgetting what came next. "Wait. What?"

Colorado State Trooper Jason Morales dutifully marked it down in his report, just as he had a few minutes earlier when the suspect closed his eyes and tilted his head back to guess the passage of 30 seconds. After 90 seconds, Morales shook his head.

Although the scenario was comical, no one in the cinder-block room at the Colorado State Patrol training academy was laughing. Here in Colorado, this is serious stuff now that marijuana is legal: Law enforcement is scrambling to get up to speed in spotting drug-impaired drivers.

On Jan. 1, the state became the first in the nation to allow those older than 21 to purchase recreational marijuana. Decriminalization supporters cheered, pot shop cash registers hummed, and state coffers begin to fill. In January, Colorado took in $2 million in pot taxes, officials said Monday. State officials have predicted a windfall of more than $134 million per year from heavily taxed marijuana sales, which include a 12.9% sales tax and a 15% excise tax.

But some in law enforcement are less enthusiastic.

"It certainly has made things more complicated," said Darrell Lingk, the Colorado Department of Transportation's director of transportation safety.

With nothing comparable to the roadside breath test to detect drunk drivers, officers must hone their skills at figuring out whether the driver is high on drugs, he said.

Last week, 20 officers graduated from a nine-day Drug Recognition Expert course, the first since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana sales. The final test was an evaluation of a suspect who exhibited behaviors consistent with being stoned. Students checked the suspect's pupils for dilation, tested his balance, measured his heart rate and blood pressure, challenged his short-term memory and listened for slurred speech.

This latest graduating class brings the total number of DRE-certified officers in the state to 212. Lingk said the hope was to reach 300 by the end of 2015 as well as encourage officers from every jurisdiction to receive at least some drug recognition training.

Although DRE classes have been around for decades in the U.S. — the first one was created by the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1970s — those taking this one acknowledged a new sense of urgency because of marijuana's change in status.

"You make it legal, you're just going to raise consumption. It's more work for us," said Jerry Sharp, a Greeley state trooper. An instructor in the DRE class, he took the part of the stoner in the role-playing exercise; he passed some tests and failed others to show fellow troopers the challenges of assessment. "It's like putting a puzzle together."

The scope of the problem is largely unknown, in part because in the past if a driver tested positive for alcohol, authorities did not check for drug use. That is changing.

In January, the State Patrol began keeping track and found that of 61 traffic stops for impaired driving, 31 involved marijuana. Officials said it was a small sampling because it came from only one law enforcement agency, which does not make stops in major metro areas.

"Other states are watching us to see how we handle it," Lingk said.

Colorado and Washington state voters passed referendums in 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana. But medical marijuana is legal in 20 other states, including California, as well as in Washington, D.C. By 2017, at least 10 states could join Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational use, said Morgan Fox, communications manager for Marijuana Policy Report, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

Among those watching what happens are U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. Although marijuana use is still a federal crime, Holder has told federal prosecutors in Colorado and Washington state that small-time recreational use is not a priority. But he has said he will watch for underage access to marijuana and problems with impaired driving.

Drunk driving remains more prevalent than drugged driving, Lingk said, but "drugs are starting to catch up, especially in Colorado." He noted there had also been an uptick in heroin and methamphetamine use in the state. One of the skills DRE graduates learn is how to spot needle-track marks obscured by tattoos.

The Colorado Assn. of Chiefs of Police has urged Gov. John Hickenlooper to use some of the marijuana-tax windfall to create a grant program for police departments to cover extra costs related to legalization.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Transportation has begun a $1-million public service campaign called "Drive High, Get a DUI." The idea is to remind users that driving while stoned is a crime, and to counteract some users' misconception that they drive better when high.

Using humor to target men ages 21 to 34, the ads feature a series of stoned characters trying to do everyday things. In one wordless ad, a man tries repeatedly to switch on a grill while his friends look on: It turns out there is no propane tank. The ad's tag line reads: "Grilling high is now legal. Driving to get the propane you forgot is not."

nation@latimes.com