Drugged Driving and the Impact of Recent Marijuana Legalization Decisions

November 18th, 2012

One issue that received a lot of attention following the election results last week was the decision by voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize the possession of certain amounts of marijuana. Though forces on both sides of the issue mobilized for a long and expensive campaign, one of the issues not often discussed was what effect the legalization will have on impaired driving laws.

Marijuana is known to cause slowed reaction times and possible dizziness. Drivers who are high are more likely to drift between lanes or swerve. Data that was obtained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration uncovered that in 2009, almost 1/3 of all fatally injured drivers who had blood drawn were discovered to be positive for drugs other than alcohol.  The danger of such substances while on the road is thus pretty clear.

Interestingly, the measure passed in Colorado makes no change to the state’s DUI laws. This has presented a problem for lawmakers and been worrisome for drivers concerned about what effect this lack of action may have, with some saying there will surely be more impaired driving accidents as a result.

Washington, on the other hand, changed its law to include a provision that contains a specific blood-test limit for marijuana. Police are being trained to enforce the new law, saying they will arrest any impaired driver, whether the impairment is due to alcohol of marijuana.

One big problem for law enforcement officials is establishing clear standards for determining what amount of marijuana, or other drugs, qualifies a driver as intoxicated. Defense attorneys are already eager to challenge the new law in Washington, saying that setting a strict standard similar to blood alcohol concentration limits is unfair and unsupported by evidence. Defense attorneys argue that there is no scientific consensus that supports a clear level for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) impairment. Washington set 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood as the legal limit, joining Pennsylvania, while Ohio and Nevada say the limit is 2 nanograms. Twelve other states, including Illinois and Arizona, maintain zero-tolerance polices.

Another problem is that unlike with a breath test machine, there’s no easy way to establish someone’s level of marijuana use. Some tests can pick up levels of pot that is stored in a person’s fat for weeks or months after use, something that has no value in the context of a DWI case.

Those against the strict limits claim states have tried to establish a hard and fast rule with a substance that affects everyone differently. Some have said that the limit in Washington is low enough that sick patients who use marijuana medicinally would likely fail the test even if they had not used before driving. Others worry about a different provision which establishes a zero-tolerance policy for those under 21. That means that any presence of marijuana would be grounds for conviction, something that could jeopardize admission to college or cause some students to lose their student loans.

Here in Minnesota, marijuana has been decriminalized to some extent. For very small amounts of marijuana the laws do not require prison time or even a criminal record, since possession of a small amount of marijuana outside of a motor vehicle is only a petty misdemeanor.  However, the state’s driving under the influence laws do dictate that a person may be found guilty of DWI if he or she is proven to be driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of marijuana. Though the state does have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to testing positive for certain controlled substances while driving, there is a specific exception for marijuana. Again, the individual must be proven to be under the influence of marijuana at the time they were driving or in physical control of their motor vehicle.

For more information on this topic, refer to one of our earlier blog post.

Source:With Marijuana Legal, Police Worry of High Drivers and Road Safety,” by The Associated Press, published at FoxNews.com.

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