Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday urged lawmakers to pass his bill aimed at cracking down on stoned drivers as more recreational marijuana stores open around the state.
“After years and years and years of seeing a regular and continued decline in traffic accidents, we have seen those numbers level off and in some cases, in some areas, actually go up,” Baker said at a news conference in his State House office, flanked by police officials and two members of the Cannabis Control Commission, Jennifer Flanagan and Britte McBride.
While those trends may be partly because of increased distracted driving — such as texting behind the wheel —
and traffic congestion, Baker said, “Today’s conversation about [operating under the influence] . . . which incorporates the fact that we now have an adult-use burgeoning cannabis industry, is an important part of the puzzle.”
Baker, who fought the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana, said his bill would empower police to keep the streets safe. So far, the state has authorized 12 pot stores to open.
Under Baker’s proposals, some of which were opposed by civil liberties advocates, 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 as for alleged drunk drivers who refuse a breathalyzer test.
The bill also calls for more police training to recognize drug impairment and easing the process for state troopers to cite drivers for open containers of marijuana.
Baker’s bill mirrors recommendations by a commission of law enforcement officers, defense attorneys, and civil rights advocates that was formed in accordance with the marijuana legalization law. Most of the commission’s 19 suggestions were passed unanimously or nearly so, with the dissenter often being the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has cited research that found marijuana does impair driving, but its danger is more akin to distracted driving and is far less than that posed by drunken driving.
No test exists that can measure someone’s level of impairment from marijuana the way a breathalyzer can with alcohol. There is no correlation between the level of THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive compound, in the blood and the level of impairment.
The ACLU said it opposes pressuring drivers to take biological tests because they would only show past marijuana use, not current impairment — leading to innocent people being punished.
“Motorists should not be faced with losing their license for refusal to submit to a test that is not scientifically proven to measure impairment,” said Matt Allen, field director for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Policies intended to reduce impaired driving should not trump science and civil liberties.”
But police officials argue 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 traffic violations, behavior, appearance, and performance on field sobriety tests.
“If the training is sufficient and accurate and done the way that it’s supposed to be done” then police will only pressure impaired drivers to take a test, Baker said. “Generally, they’re not pulling people over unless they think they have a reason to.”
Over the past decade, alcohol has accounted for the bulk of impaired-driving arrests made by State Police. In 2017, 86 percent of such arrests were related to alcohol, while 14 percent involved marijuana or other drugs.
According to Baker’s office, alcohol was the most common substance found in drivers involved in fatal crashes from 2013 to 2017, and marijuana was second. Meanwhile, 11 percent of drivers in fatal crashes had used both alcohol and drugs — a combination that can be particularly dangerous for driving.
Christopher Mason, deputy superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police, said he wasn’t sure whether the number of stoned drivers had increased since marijuana legalization, but “anecdotally, I can tell you we’ve seen an increase in impairment” in recent years, adding that much of that was because of the state’s “significant opioid issue.”
Marijuana dispensaries will now distribute fliers to customers about the dangers of stoned driving, such as its ability to impair driving skills, reaction times, coordination, and decision-making.
“Our message is clear: If you feel different, you drive different,” said Keith Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association and the CEO of Revolutionary Clinics.
McBride, the cannabis commissioner, said the bill would deter stoned drivers.
“This bill does not take away personal choice to consume cannabis, nor does it re-stigmatize” the drug, she said. “This bill does stigmatize operating under the influence, as it should.”
Colleen Sheehey-Church, with the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, said through tears that she wished a police officer had pulled over the car her 18-year-old son Dustin was riding in, in 2004, with a driver who was drunk and high. The car crashed, killing Dustin.
“Training and supporting law enforcement is one of the most important steps in ensuring that the tragedy our family has suffered will not happen to others,” Sheehey-Church said, calling impaired driving “a crime that is 100 percent preventable.”
Baker’s measure would also require adopting electronic search warrants so that officers could quickly obtain the authority to have a medical professional administer a biological test for suspected impaired drivers.
Studies have found mixed results on whether legalizing marijuana seemed to make roads less safe. Last year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that collision claims in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon were about 3 percent more frequent after they legalized pot than would have been anticipated without legalization.
But a study in the American Journal of Public Health found no increase in crash deaths in Colorado and Washington, relative to similar states, after legalization.
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @NaomiMartin.