The first recreational pot shops have opened. And civilization as we know it has not come to an end.
But there remain a number of essential fixes the Legislature must make in the state’s still rather new marijuana law now that some of its potential pitfalls have become real problems.
Driving Under the Influence: Advocates for the state’s entry into recreational marijuana sales insisted the drug be treated the same way alcohol always has been. Fair enough. And so drivers are prohibited from smoking behind the wheel in much the same way they are prohibited from holding an open beer can.
A special commission on impaired driving recommended that those pulled over who decline a drug test should lose their licenses for six months — the same penalty faced by accused drunk drivers who refuse a Breathalyzer.
Of course there is no reliable breath-test for marijuana and likely won’t be in the near future. But there are reliable visual and motor tests that police certified as drug recognition experts can use in lieu of the usual field sobriety tests for alcohol. The state’s highest court has already ruled that the 12-step evaluation, which includes a urine test administered by those officers, can be used in court as a measure of impairment.
But how to get a driver to take any test, including for blood, saliva or urine? Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, who serves on the special commission, reported that more than half of suspected stoned drivers refuse any test. Of the 10 states that allow sale of recreational marijuana, only Massachusetts and Alaska do not impose a penalty for refusing a drug test. That issue calls for quick remedy.
Drug Use and Employment: Case law is beginning to pile up on the limits of marijuana use prohibitions in the workplace, to the extent that it too should be settled in the Legislature rather than piecemeal in the courts. Clearly there will need to be different standards for different jobs. Police, first responders, or anyone who gets behind the wheel of any moving vehicle or piece of heavy machinery will need to come under a different set of rules than someone who spends the day staring at a computer screen.
Employers aren’t being asked to put up with impaired employees on the job no matter what their drug of choice. But what about the employee who smokes a perfectly legal joint at bedtime rather than, say, having a glass of brandy?
State Senator Jason Lewis is already working on legislation aimed at striking a sensible balance to protect employees who may use marijuana at home, while protecting employers from the dangers posed by drugged workers. His inspiration was the case of Bernadette Coughlin, fired by food service company Sodexo for flunking a drug test after she fell at work and broke two bones. Coughlin has acknowledged occasionally inhaling marijuana vapor at bedtime, but denies ever being impaired at work. Reaching a balance is tricky, in part because the issue of impairment isn’t easy to define. (See above.)
Community Host Agreements: The slow rollout of recreational pot shops has been blamed in part on the absence of those all-essential community host agreements. Without such agreements, potential retailers can kiss their chances of getting a cannabis license goodbye. Some communities are acting out of an abundance of understandable caution. No one wants traffic jams, or sales near schools. But some communities view such businesses as potential cash cows, demanding perks and payments in excess of what the statewide law requires. The Cannabis Control Commission has insisted that it doesn’t have the authority to overrule such agreements and wants the Legislature to clarify its responsibility.
No one ever said any of this would be easy. But back in 2016 Massachusetts voters spoke. The Legislature did its best to address a ballot question sorely in need of cleaning up. The 2019 session will be time for Round Two.