Driving stoned: Massachusetts standard needed
State public safety officials see the problem of stoned driving coming at them like a freight train. They may be doing their best to head it off, but without changes in the law, their best won’t be good enough.
With medical marijuana already on the scene and the first recreational pot shops being licensed, the case for keeping drugged drivers from getting behind the wheel has grown more urgent.
“Right now it’s not uncommon to hear people say, ‘I drive better when I’m high,’ ” Undersecretary for Public Safety and Security Jennifer Queally said at a news conference to introduce the department’s latest anti-impaired-driving campaign. “It’s not true for alcohol and it’s not true for marijuana.
“If you’re high or stoned, you’re not a safe driver,” she added.
The fear is that as marijuana is not merely legalized but also normalized, so too will be the idea of having a toke — or three — and getting behind the wheel.
The experience in Colorado and Washington state — the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana — confirms that sobering scenario.
In Colorado, fatalities in which drivers tested positive for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) rose from 18 in 2013 (before the introduction of recreational marijuana) to 77 in 2016, according to a recent study done for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
In Washington state, roadside surveys of drivers stopped who tested positive for THC rose from 14.6 percent just prior to the introduction of legal recreational marijuana to 21.4 percent one year later. A survey taken in both states of drivers who reported using marijuana in the previous month found that 43.6 percent admitted to driving under the influence.
So the scope of the problem should be no shocker. Making impaired driving socially unacceptable with public service ads — with help from the cannabis industry and with support from ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft — is a start, but only a start.
After an exceedingly slow start (its second meeting is scheduled for Friday) the Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving is finally beginning its deep dive into what to do about it all, including changes in the law. Their report is due Jan. 1, 2019, after pot shops are on the scene.
A major issue: coming up with a possible standard for impairment comparable to the blood alcohol level used to prosecute drunk driving cases. But blood tests take time, and the standard is much in dispute.
“Some people think there’s going to be some sort of silver bullet,” said Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, who represents the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association on the special commission. “But the science is so very new.
“The simple part is taking people off the road,” he added. “The hard part is proving they are impaired in court.”
Two ideas the commission is expected to consider ought to be enacted:
• A doubling of the number of trained and certified police Drug Recognition Experts from the current 155 statewide who can administer an assessment and later testify in court.
• A penalty — like the loss of a driver’s license for six months — for those who refuse to submit to an assessment, like the penalty for those who refuse a Breathalyzer test for alcohol.
There are pilot programs nationally for possible breath or saliva tests for marijuana — all in the quest for a “magic bullet” Carmichael spoke of.
In the meantime a little common sense wouldn’t hurt. Or as Queally put it, “Impaired is impaired is impaired. . . . If you get in a car and you’re high, it’s illegal.”
It’s also just plain dumb.