Governor Charlie Baker ramped up his push for a proposal targeting stoned drivers Monday, framing it as change that should go “hand-in-hand” with marijuana cafes potentially entering the state’s nascent legalized landscape.
The Republican’s latest pitch comes less than two weeks after state marijuana regulators cleared the way for marijuana deliveries to begin in Massachusetts, and, pending a change in state law, for a pilot program allowing for so-called social consumption sites.
Appearing with law enforcement officials, anti-drunk-driving advocates, and others Monday, Baker sought to keep pressure on legislators to act on the bill he says will empower police when patrolling the roads, but also has stoked concerns among defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates.
“These sites . . . create new challenges for our public safety officials,” said Baker, who actively opposed the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana. “I do have some concern about heading down the social consumption route without putting some sort of structure, like the one we’re talking about today, in place because I think the two of them go hand-in-hand.”
The state’s Cannabis Control Commission approved the regulations, 4-1, on Sept. 24, the same day Baker announced a sweeping four-month ban on all vaping products. The only “no” vote came from Jen Flanagan, a Baker appointee and former Democratic lawmaker from Leominster.
Under Baker’s legislation, which he filed in January, suspected stoned drivers who refuse police demands for a biological test would lose their driver’s licenses for at least six months — the same penalty for alleged drunk drivers who refuse a Breathalyzer.
The bill also calls for increasing police training to recognize drug impairment and to expand the number of specifically trained officers from 150 to 350 statewide. A so-called drug recognition expert would also qualify as an expert witness for court testimony under Baker’s legislation.
“There’s no magic bullet,” said Britte McBride, a cannabis control commissioner who backs Baker’s bill. “What this bill does, it’s a constellation of different provisions that allow for law enforcement to make a reliable, valid assessment.”
The five-member commission itself released a statement Monday saying its regulations “strike a careful balance” and that it appreciates Baker’s push for stronger safeguards.
“Impaired driving remains a serious concern, which is why the issue continues to be a focus of commission research and policy making,” the commission said.
There’s currently no accurate breathalyzer for cannabis use, and officials have said that it could be about five years before there’s one that detects impairment levels.
Police officials have argued that blood, saliva, and urine tests would be among a litany of assessments to build a case of impairment against a driver, including the officer’s observations of the driver’s behavior.
In recent years, judges in Massachusetts have limited opinion testimony in numerous drugged-driving cases because of the lack of scientific validation of the drug-recognition training program.
In buttressing its push, the Baker administration cited a report, prepared by a federally funded drug task force, that found in Colorado the number of fatalities involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana had more than doubled between 2013 and 2018.
But other studies examining the impact of legalization have been mixed. A study in the American Journal of Public Health, for example, found no increase in crash deaths in Colorado and Washington, relative to similar states, after legalization.
Critics of Baker’s proposal say there is no evidence of any increases in impaired driving or crashes since marijuana legalization in Massachusetts in late 2016. Current laws, they argue, are sufficient to prosecute dangerous high drivers.
“All these people who are now on the drugged-driving bandwagon didn’t give a hoot in hell about it before cannabis was legalized,” said John Amabile, a criminal defense lawyer. “All of a sudden, now it’s the biggest problem in public safety? It’s a complete fraud that’s being perpetrated by these antilegalization forces.”
Monday was not the first time Baker has publicly urged lawmakers to act on the bill. He held a news conference in his office in March — which also included McBride — arguing that the state’s growing number of dispensaries makes addressing stoned driving an “important part of the puzzle” to keeping roads safe.
Still, the bill has seen little movement since it landed in the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, which has yet schedule a public hearing on it. An aide to state Representative Claire D. Cronin, the House chair of the committee, said it plans to hear bills related to driving offenses at some point during the “fall months.”