Law enforcement officials and traffic safety experts fear that marijuana’s rising popularity in medicinal-use and full-legalization states like Washington will further spike the traffic hazard of driving while high. While research remains incomplete on how much toking is too much, “smoking marijuana has a very negative effect on your ability to operate a motor vehicle,” said Gil Kerlikowske, former Seattle police chief and director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy – the Drug Czar. “It’s quite dangerous to you, your passengers and others on the road.”
Marijuana advocates acknowledge that driving under the influence of cannabis is ill-advised. But they argue that law enforcement’s concern is overblown and point to a study last year that concluded the auto accident risk posed by marijuana is on par with antihistamines and penicillin. The debate over marijuana and highway safety is set against the backdrop of voter-approved marijuana legalization – for personal use – in Washington and Colorado, as well as medical marijuana laws on the books in Washington and 19 other states.
Law enforcement officials say that while traffic fatalities in Colorado decreased 16 percent between 2006 to 2011, deaths involving drivers testing positive for just marijuana increased 114 percent. And in Washington, according to Chuck Hayes of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, tests confirming the presence of THC – marijuana’s active ingredient – are 42 percent of the state’s toxicology lab caseload since legalization this year, up from 26 percent last year. “I’m not sure the public really understands the danger of it,” said Hayes, a retired Oregon State Police captain who trains police officers to be drug recognition experts. “A lot of education needs to be done in this area.”
But those favoring marijuana legalization or medical use insist the greater danger is one-size-fits-all state laws that target anyone behind the wheel with traces of THC in their system, or peg violation to a particular THC blood-test threshold. Such laws, they say, are a particular threat to medical marijuana consumers because THC lingers in blood and urine for days after consumption. These “zero tolerance” and “per se” laws are on the books in 14 states, including Washington. “The data doesn’t support the disproportionate policy response that law enforcement is asking for,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML – the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “We’re not having a public outcry saying we need a serious crackdown for antihistamine and penicillin.”
Kerlikowske, who supports such laws, called claims about detrimental impact on medical marijuana patients “a bit of a red herring.” “It’s pretty obvious you’re getting stopped for a reason – bad driving,” he said. “In the real world, those arguments go up in smoke.” In the same ballot initiative last year legalizing marijuana for personal use, Washington voters also approved a “per se” standard that set the THC threshold at 5 ng/ml (nanograms per milliliter). Blood tests showing a THC level above that automatically subject drivers to arrest, no matter what the traffic violation caused police to pull them over.
Most states, including California, follow the “effect-based” legal standard, meaning police and prosecutors must prove a causal relationship – an impaired driver had ingested marijuana or another drug. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2007 National Roadside Survey of nearly 10,000 drivers nationwide found 11.3 percent were positive for illegal drugs. The most popular: marijuana, at 8.6 percent. Marijuana advocates say “per se” and “zero tolerance” laws pose a danger to medical marijuana users and others who may have THC traces in their blood but are not driving high.
Law enforcement is “criminalizing thousands of medical marijuana patients unnecessarily,” said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access. “For the most part, they’re not behaving any differently than any other driver.” Hermes says his organization has no problem with police pulling over impaired drivers, but it worries that marijuana users with residual traces of THC might end up being prosecuted over relatively minor infractions, such as failure to use a turn signal or not wearing a seat belt. “Marijuana has been in use for decades without significant risk on the roads,” he said. “We don’t need to suddenly protect the public from a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Numerous academic studies have concluded there is clear evidence of a link between marijuana consumption and traffic accidents. A study conducted last year at Dalhousie University Medical School in Canada found those who consume cannabis within three hours of driving are almost twice as likely to cause an accident those who are drug-or alcohol-free. But a 2011 study by two American researchers found a decrease in traffic fatalities in states with medical marijuana laws. The researchers, Mark Anderson at Montana State University and Daniel Rees at the University of Colorado-Denver, concluded marijuana often is a substitute for alcohol and users tend to consume it at home rather than driving to commercial establishments.
Nevertheless, “anything you do that changes your perception, reaction times, reasoning (and) alertness is a threat to public safety, no question,” said Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw in an interview. “Driving is the most dangerous thing we do on a routine basis.”
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