With one in five Americans living in states with legal cannabis, it stands to reason that more drivers may be driving while under the influence. Research has shown a slight increase in marijuana DUI activity, but not enough to definitively regard it as an epidemic. But with traffic fatalities reaching its highest level in five decades, law enforcement is being pressured to crack down on impaired driving, whatever the influence may be.
Alcohol levels are easily determined using a breathalyzer, a device that’s been around for decades and has a proven track record in accuracy. Used in conjunction with a field sobriety test, police officers can determine within minutes whether a driver is truly impaired.
No such test for marijuana exists, although there are some potential methods currently being developed. Police must use the field sobriety tests, or more controversial methods that involve physiological observation and can prove to be inaccurate. Symptoms like tachycardia, hypertension and other physical symptoms are used to determine marijuana intoxication, in conjunction with a blood test.
Unfortunately, these methods are not reliable. Tachycardia and hypertension are symptoms that can be attributed to numerous conditions and therefore serve as supplementary evidence in court. Physical observations can also be subjective, especially to a police officer who is not a trained medical professional. Blood tests are accurate in determining if a person has used cannabis within the past month. By measuring the amount of unmetabolized THC in the blood, the test can prove how recently someone consumed cannabis.
In Washington State, five nanograms per milliliter is the legal limit for marijuana, but that number is not based on any valid science. “Everyone is looking for one number,” said Marilyn A. Huestis, a senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “And it’s almost impossible to come up with one number. Occasional users can be very impaired at one microgram per liter, and chronic, frequent smokers will be over one microgram per liter maybe for weeks.”
Huestis brings up the issue of tolerance, which is common among medical marijuana patients like Greg. He submitted to a blood test after a traffic stop and his THC levels were at 22-nanograms per milliliter, well over the legal limit. Because of his tolerance due to a daily dose of cannabis, Greg says that he is “completely functional” when using marijuana. But under Washington state law, Greg has been charged with a DUI.
In order to prove his innocence in court, Greg’s defense will have to use scientific evidence that proves the legal limit is inaccurate, which may inspire lawmakers reconsider legal limits for marijuana.
New data out of the state of Colorado shows that the number of marijuana DUIs dropped 33% when you compare the first 3 months of this year to the first 3 months of 2016. Of course, when voters in Colorado approved marijuana legalization some 4 ½ years ago, we were told by those who opposed that decision that Colorado roads would be clogged with stoned drivers wreaking havoc. It turns out that those predictions were a bit off.
And the numbers we are talking about are incredibly small. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), from January to March of 2017 there were 155 people cited for “marijuana-use-only” impairment while driving, compared to the 232 cited from January to March of 2016. Keep in mind that hundreds of thousands of people take to Colorado roads every single day.
And while this would seem like good news, some people are still worried. “We’re still troubled by the fact that marijuana users are still telling us they routinely drive high,” CDOT spokesman Sam Cole said. “We’re pleased with the awareness, but we’re not so pleased with the behaviors that are actually happening.”
It seems a study conducted by CDOT showed that 55% of respondents said they felt it was safe to drive under the influence of marijuana. But according to this new data, either less people are driving while under the influence of marijuana or those 55% are correct that the danger in minimal, especially when compared to alcohol.
Colorado law enforcement has never been more aware and on the lookout for “stoned” drivers than they are in the era of legalization. So either less people on the road are high, or marijuana users are driving well enough not to be noticed. In fact, since marijuana can stay in a user’s system for weeks after use, the number of DUI citations that actually caught someone under the influence of marijuana at the time is probably even lower.
This is not to say that I think you should burn down a blunt and get in your car for a drive; it just highlights that the doom-and-gloom predictions of prohibitionists are – once again – completely wrong.
“Are the citations going down? Yeah, but is the number of people using marijuana and then driving going down? I don’t know how to quantify that,”
said Nate Reid , a CSP (Colorado State Patrol) spokesman.
But if police are more alert to the issue and citations are going down, doesn’t logic dictate that less are using marijuana and driving? Or, again, are those that do just driving well enough not to be noticed?
Either way, “stoned driving” can be wiped off the board once and for all as a fear for those in states looking to legalize.
Originally published: The Marijuana Times
In Colorado, like many states with legal marijuana, driving with a small trace of marijuana (5 nanograms) in one’s bloodstream results in a DUI. This results a legal conundrum: does marijuana in one’s system necessarily mean impairment?
If a recent Colorado ruling in favor of a “stoned driver” is any indication, that answer is a definitive no. Ralph Banks, a 27-year-old Ralph Banks of Lakewood, Colorado, had his cannabis DUI acquitted by a Jefferson County Court jury after a less than 30-minute discussion in the jury room.
Banks’ case dates back to last March (2015), when a missing headlight got him pulled over by the Lakewood police; he was given a roadside test, deemed “under the influence of cannabis”, then cuffed and handed a DUI. A blood test also revealed that Banks had 7.9 nanograms per milliliter of THC in his System, which is 2.9 milliliters over the legal limit.
However, last week’s jury threw the case out and called Banks innocent after a brief huddle, clearly deciding he wasn’t impaired. As one would expect, Banks deemed the whole ordeal a disaster.
“It was a nightmare. It was the worst experience of my life.”
But one man’s temporary nightmare could mean future bliss for medicated or high drivers all throughout Colorado. Banks’ attorney, well-known cannabis litigator Rob Corry seems to think this decision indicates as long as the driver isn’t impaired, he or she will be in the clear.
“Now with this case, it’s perfectly legal to get behind the wheel after consuming marijuana as long as you’re not impaired. And that’s the key. You can do it if you’re not impaired. If you’re impaired, do not get behind the wheel of a vehicle.”
Given this result, Corry’s logic seems at least somewhat believable. However, there are many mitigating factors in any case that can determine one’s guilt, and they all stem from proof of impairment.
Banks’ case was pretty cut and dry, because a missing headlight isn’t like swerving in and out of lanes or stopping at a green light. Perhaps Banks’ headlight was caused by stoner indifference, but it’s more likely it was just an honest mistake warranting a citation, not a roadside drug test.
Still, there is plenty of evidence in favor of the hypothesis that medicated–but not impaired–drivers will continue to win these cases as they arise. Last year, a woman in Colorado also had her DUI acquitted in a very similar scenario; in 2013 a Michigan man set the first precedent for these types of cases when a court also dropped his marijuana DUI charge.
Moreover, numerous studies–even one by the government–have shown empirical evidence that drivers high on cannabis are 60 times safer than those on alcohol. In fact, the government study even claims that drivers on marijuana
“were no more likely to crash than who had not used any drugs or alcohol prior to driving.”
That may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s clearly safe to say that driving on marijuana clearly does not pose the threat driving on alcohol, pain killers, or harder drugs presents. While it’s still not a good idea to get behind a wheel right after consuming cannabis in most circumstances, these recent rulings and science show that you’re not really putting anyone at risk, nor are you committing a crime.
For some medical marijuana patients, like those with Parkinson’s, it’s not difficult to see how cannabis could in fact improve one’s driving. Cannabis (CBD in particular) has the ability to cease shaking and steady hands down.
Would you rather have that driver on his medicine or “stone” sober.