The state’s top marijuana regulators appear divided over a proposed crackdown on stoned driving in Massachusetts, mirroring a broader debate over how to detect and punish drug impairment on the road.
During a meeting Thursday, the five members of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission voted unanimously to approve a statement that carefully avoids taking any position on pending drugged-driving legislation put forward by Governor Charlie Baker.
Instead, the agency’s message to state lawmakers gives simultaneous voice to the views of two seemingly conflicting camps: those who believe stoned driving is an emerging crisis that demands quick legislative action and others who fear that beefed-up enforcement would place too much stock in flimsy science and fall disproportionately on Black and brown drivers.
“The Commission supports legislation that strengthens laws against the operation of motor vehicles while under the influence of alcohol, cannabis and other drugs,” the agency said in its statement. “The Commission further supports legislation that protects civil rights, racial justice, data collection on gender and race that ensures equitable enforcement of the law, and advances in-science-based technology needed to accurately assess cannabis impairment.”
While driving under the influence of drugs is already illegal, Baker’s bill would expand implementation of the so-called Drug Recognition Expert protocol. In the absence of a reliable “breathalyzer”-like device for marijuana, the system purports to train police officers in observation techniques that allow them to reliably detect whether a driver is impaired and by which substances.
The measure would also require state courts to accept the testimony of such DRE-trained officers and automatically suspend the licenses of suspected stoned drivers who refuse to submit to biological testing for marijuana metabolites.
Proponents say the bill is a needed update in the wake of the 2016 decision by voters to legalize marijuana and would better equip police and prosecutors to make roads safer and hold drugged drivers accountable.
But critics have assailed the plan, arguing that the DRE protocol is subjective, scientifically unproven, and highly subject to bias. They also noted that current blood, hair, and saliva tests for marijuana compounds only indicate use in recent days or weeks, not active impairment, and questioned whether the Legislature has the power to compel judges to consider certain evidence.
The commission’s five members appeared to be split along similar lines as they debated the statement’s wording, though they insisted it was not intended as a verdict on Baker’s bill but general policy guidance for lawmakers.
Several other policy missives from the commission to Beacon Hill have similarly avoided endorsing specific legislation or language — but most nonetheless offered a much clearer directive, including a recent request for the Legislature to create a no-interest loan fund for disenfranchised applicants struggling to break into the legal cannabis business, and another vote Thursday in favor of fixing a technical state-law flaw that has prevented the implementation of cannabis cafes.
Commissioner Kimberly Roy, who was appointed by Baker and endorsed his bill in her personal capacity at a December hearing, led the push for the commission to weigh in on the fraught issue of stoned driving Thursday, citing statistics she said showed an increase in the number of crashes caused by impairment and noting that other states where cannabis is legal have passed get-tough laws aimed at curbing drugged driving.
“We have fallen asleep at the wheel as it relates to [operating under the influence],” Roy said during the meeting. “This public safety issue is too critical to ignore.”
Speaking later in the day to reporters, Roy added, “we all want laws to be enforced fairly and equitably,” and stressed that the vote to approve the statement was unanimous.
“Today, five commissioners [said] with a unanimous voice that we’d like the Legislature to act,” she said.
Commission chairman Steve Hoffman also said lawmakers “can and should take action” now, even if only on a pared-down bill that anticipates future scientific advances in impairment detection.
Commissioner Ava Concepcion, however, emphasized the second half of the agency’s message in arguing that lawmakers should not rush to pass a bill based on flawed science.
“My concern is about getting it right, not about the time,” she told reporters. “Unless there is something from the Legislature that aligns with that statement, the commission doesn’t support it as a whole.”
Commissioner Nurys Camargo also raised objections, saying during the meeting that police bias had plagued communities of color “for generations” and asking what a drugged-driving crackdown might mean for medical marijuana patients and people with cognitive disabilities.
“The science is not there yet,” Camargo said. “We have to be very careful what message we’re sending to the State House.”