It was bound to happen once marijuana legalization started looking like a real possibility. The prohibitionists and the drug warriors never go down without a fight; they always find an angle. This time, as at least two states — Colorado and Washington — are looking at legalization measures on November’s ballot, the new bugaboo is driving while high.
Nobody’s sure how to solve the question of when someone is just too stoned to drive, but that doesn’t keep plenty of people from offering “solutions” to the “problem” — which is now graduating from “just” a problem, thanks to sensationalist mainstream press coverage, and becoming an “epidemic” or even a “crisis.”
Welcome to legislation by press hysteria, same as you got in the U.K. a couple years ago when tabloid press coverage about “killer Skunk weed” which supposedly “causes psychosis” resulted in Britain actually backtracking on its own progressive cannabis laws.
This time, we’re supposed to be scared shitless of stoned drivers running amok on our highways. Nobody wants to share the roads with a bunch of impaired morons, but is it really that simple?
Think about it. How many of your friends have “that time I was so drunk I smashed up my car” stories? Several of them, if your friends are like mine. Now: How many of them have “that time I was so high on pot I smashed up my car” stories? None? Exactly.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped rabid anti-marijuana nut jobs like Dr. Bob DuPont, drug czar for Presidents Nixon and Ford, from making dire pronouncements which have little contact with consensual reality.
Dr. DuPont, who is now president of the Institute for Behavior and Health, which, surprise!, “works to reduce drug abuse,” claims research proves “the terrible carnage out there on the roads caused by marijuana.”
But if marijuana really did pose a major hazard to highway safety, you can believe that we’d already have noticed the gory results — same as we did back when alcohol Prohibition ended, and the automobile fatalities started adding up. Pretty quickly, it became impossible to ignore the death toll that alcohol was taking among motorists.
And that’s the point. Our roads haven’t been painted red with the blood of marijuana-impaired drivers and their victims, and there’s a reason why. Cannabis — especially for experienced users — just doesn’t impair driving ability to the degree that does alcohol, or, for that matter, opiate pain medication or even nerve pills like Xanax or Valium.
At least one scientific study shows that traffic fatalities are reduced in states which legalize medical marijuana
, with a nearly nine percent drop in traffic deaths and a five percent reduction in beer sales. “Our research suggests that the legalization of medical marijuana reduces traffic fatalities through reducing alcohol consumption by young adults,” said Daniel Rees, professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver, who coauthored the study.
As public consciousness has risen around the hazards of drunk driving, people have reduced that kind of behavior. A recent nationwide census of fatal traffic accidents showed that deadly crashes have declined in recent years. So where is the supposed “carnage” caused by marijuana-impaired drivers?
With estimates of current marijuana users in the Unites States running between 40 and 100 million, you can bet that if weed truly caused wrecks, it would be a national tragedy on the level of that already experienced with drunk driving.
Sure, it’s a bad idea for novice marijuana users to hit the highways just after ripping a few bong hits, but for the rest of us — especially medicinal cannabis patients, who by necessity use (and are accustomed to the effects of) large amounts of herb every day — it’s not a major factor.
“Emerging scientific research indicates that cannabis actually has far less impact on the psychomotor skills needed for driving than alcohol does, and is seldom a causal factor in automobile accidents,” according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which has studies to back that statement up. (Too bad NORML’s decided to ignore the evidence — and their own policy
— in supporting Washington’s I-502, which punishes not impairment but a particular blood THC level.)
But, of course, those who are comfortable with and accustomed to the current paradigm surrounding alcohol impairment — as in, a certain blood level means that you are, per se, guilty of driving under the influence (DUI) — would like to see a blood alcohol level for marijuana become codified into law, as well.
Besides the already mentioned phenomenon of experienced marijuana users not showing meaningful driving impairment
, an additional complication is that since THC — the main active ingredient in marijuana — closely matches an endogenous body chemical, anandamide, that your body isn’t in any hurry to get rid of it, the way it is with poisons such as alcohol, cocaine, or methamphetamine (all of which are processed and expelled by the body within three or four days).
|McAllister Law Office, P.C.
|Attorney Sean McAllister: “The explosion of medical marijuana patients has led to a lot of drivers sticking the card in law enforcement’s face”
THC isn’t like any of those substances. Your body, in fact, loves the stuff, knows that it’s good, and holds onto it for as long as it can — a minimum of 30 days. (If you think you’re safe after 30 days, think again if you’re a heavy user. I once tested positive for THC metabolites 63 days after my last ingestion, while on probation.)
One Denver marijuana advocate says that government officials are scrambling for THC blood limits, at least in part because more drivers now admit using cannabis.
“The explosion of medical marijuana patients has led to a lot of drivers sticking the [marijuana]card in law enforcement’s face, saying, ‘You can’t do anything to me, I’m legal,’ ” said Sean McAllister, a lawyer who defends people charged with driving under the influence of cannabis, reports Kristen Wyatt of the Associated Press
Driving while impaired — by any drug — is illegal in all 50 states. Such determinations have, so far, traditionally been made at the discretion of the officer, who can write drivers up if they exhibit signs of impairment. Proposed blood level limits would take enforcement to a whole new level, and make DUI-marijuana charges practically impossible to beat in court, since a given level — for example, five nanograms per milliliter, as in Washington’s proposed legalization measure I-502 — would be per se evidence of guilt; actual impairment would no longer have to be proved by law enforcement.
If that sounds as if Washington voters are being asked to decide between the insanity of marijuana prohibition and the insanity of allowing cops to declare open season on practically any driver of whom they disapprove — on the chance (or in some cases, as in medical marijuana patients, on the certainty) that they will test positive for blood THC — then you’re reading I-502 the same way I am.
Using current scientific methods, there are no fool-proof ways to correlate blood THC levels with impairment, since, unlike alcohol, THC stays in the blood for weeks after the three- or four-hour high wears off. Hence, any test which measures blood THC level is assuredly not measuring impairment at all.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned anti-marijuana wing nut, former drug czar DuPont, apparently has the ear of the Obama Administration when it comes to drugged driving legislation. DuPont wrote a paper last year on drugged driving for the administration, which has now made the issue a priority.
Physicians tell us that while many tests can show whether someone has recently used cannabis, it’s much more difficult to pinpoint, quantify or prove impairment at any certain time. Urine and blood tests can show that someone used marijuana at some point in the past, which is why employers and probation officers like them. But neither of those can really determine current impairment.
Scientists simply do not have conclusive data to link marijuana use to accident likelihood. The limited data available — some of which has actually shown experienced marijuana users drive more safely than “unimpaired” drivers — has prompted furious debate.
All of this is why it seems nobody can agree on blood THC limits to determine impairment while driving. Two states place the limit at 2 ng/ml. Some have “zero tolerance
” policies, with just such a policy recently being proposed in California. And both states considering legalization this fall — Colorado
— are debating a threshold of 5 ng/ml, with that limit actually being written into the language of Washington’s I-502.
Such an attempt failed in the Colorado Legislature last year; Denver Westword pot critic William Breathes famously tested more than three times over the limit after waking up in the morning unimpaired. State officials then set up a task force to settle the question — and the panel couldn’t agree on a solution.
|New Approach Washington’s Alison Holcomb, left, and NORML’s Russ Belville both support I-502, which would institute a strict 5 ng/ml THC blood level for DUI convictions in Washington
I-502’s backers claim their polling indicates the 5 ng/ml driving limit in the Washington state initiative could be crucial to winning at the polls in November.
“Voters were very concerned about impaired driving,” said Alison Holcomb, campaign director for New Approach Washington, the group behind the Evergreen State’s legalization measure (which, by the way, wouldn’t legalize home cultivation, and would only legalize up to one ounce).
For its part, the White House, which has set a goal of “reducing drugged driving by 10 percent” in the next three years, wants states to set a blood THC level upon which to base DUI convictions — but it has not said what limit should be, which shouldn’t be surprising since there’s almost no science to support any particular level.
Even with the White House supporting per se THC blood limits, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske admits there is no solid science behind such measures. “I’ll be dead — and so will lots of other people — from old age, before we know the impairment levels” for marijuana, Kerlikowske said.
Gil seemed to even be arguing for zero tolerance when he called it a “bogus argument” to sa
y any level of THC in a driver is safe.
Meanwhile, patients in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where medical marijuana is legal may soon be at risk of getting criminal records just for trying to drive to work or the post office, since many of them are over 5 ng/ml when they wake up in the morning.
They could be at risk for positive test — and a DUI conviction — whether they are impaired or not.