But rather than lighting up a celebratory blunt, many medicinal pot users are worried that the state’s new marijuana law makes them criminals for simply driving to work or the doctor’s office.
Voter-approved Initiative 502, for the first time in the Northwest, sets a legal DUI impairment level for THC, the psychoactive composite in marijuana.
Under a provision intended to make the recreational legalization of weed more palatable to voters, people with a THC blood content of 5 nanograms per milliliter can’t get behind the wheel.
“There’s no science behind that number,” said Dave Slack, owner of the Vancouver medicinal marijuana dispensary Releaf MM. “We’re talking such a minute amount to make most patients basically criminals.”
The authors of I-502, however, argue that they didn’t just turn to a Harold and Kumar movie to come up with nanograms per milliliter level. They say it was based on an exhaustive record of scientific research, including an Australian study of 3,400 fatal crashes that found driving risks rose between 3.5 and 5 nanograms.
Still, under the new DUI rule, Slack and other activists worry that medical pot users could be forced to give up their freedom to get around –or incur the costs of taking taxis. Steve Sarich, a Seattle resident who uses medical marijuana for back pain caused by degenerative arthritis and actively opposed the initiative due to the blood-content limit, said he may need to hire a driver or leave the state.
With the support of Sarich, the “No on 502” campaign has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to temporarily block the initiative, largely because of the DUI rule.
“With this rule, per se, I’m always going to be driving impaired,” Sarich said. “Being treated like a criminal for driving? That’s certainly not what I would call legalization.”
Mark W. Muenster, a Vancouver DUI attorney said his concern is that the referendum sets a hard-to-translate restriction that doesn’t factor size, metabolism and experience with smoking pot.
It’s safe to assume that most people smoking pot or taking medicinal pills are violating the law when they get behind the wheel, he said
“But voters in a statewide referendum established that 5 nanograms per milliliter is the science now,” Muenster said. “This is something that is probably going to have to shake out in the Legislature.”
Of course, as far as law enforcement officials are concerned, nothing has really changed. Their message: If you think you’re impaired, don’t drive.
“We don’t just pull people over and draw blood,” said Bob Calkins, a Washington State Patrol spokesman. “If you’re driving OK, we’re not going pull you over. But driving impaired is still driving impaired.”
Calkins said roadside sobriety tests, which look for everything from delayed motors skills to green-shaded tongues, won’t change as a result of the law. Officers who are trained to be drug recognition experts will also likely be called to the scene before a search warrant is obtained for a blood sample, he said.
I-502 allows Washington adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. It doesn’t dismantle the state’s medical marijuana program, but offers patients new protections against arrest, supporters say.
As of Thursday, possession of pot is legal, but criminal laws banning marijuana growing and sales — unless linked to the state’s medical marijuana program — remain in effect until the state Liquor Control Board can create licenses for growers, processors and dealers.
The U.S. Attorney for Western Washington also sent out a statement Wednesday saying that the federal government still outlaws marijuana.
Slack, however, said the DUI provision ignores both the basics and the complexities of marijuana use, such as its tendency to hang around in a user’s system for a month.
He said the driving standards should have been added later – with possible exceptions for drivers with medicinal marijuana cards – as part of the upcoming process to establish myriad guidelines on how distribute and tax recreational pot.
With the DUI rule, “they’re trying to walk before they crawl,” Slack said. “That makes the law lose a lot of the shine.”
A 2009 federal survey found roughly 4 percent of the country’s drivers — or about 10.5 million people — had driven under the influence of an illegal drug in the past year. Marijuana was by far the most common drug cited by respondents.
But some studies show 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of whole blood is equivalent to about 0.05 percent blood-alcohol level, less than the state DUI limit for alcohol in Washington and Oregon.
“Unless you’re dealing with alcohol,” Sarich said, “I don’t think you can scientifically determine a person’s impairment with a simple blood test.”
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