Massachusetts’ marijuana regulators are drafting policies that will allow the opening of the state’s first “bud bars.” Yet a bill to address the issue of pot-impaired drivers hasn’t even gotten a hearing on Beacon Hill.
The Cannabis Control Commission took public comment for two days last week and expects to finalize its latest set of regulations governing the burgeoning industry shortly after Labor Day. Those regs require that any marketing of the product “include the statement ‘Please Consume Responsibly’ ” and “a minimum of two” warning phrases. One of those, not surprisingly, is “Do not operate a vehicle or machinery under the influence of this drug.”
In addition, the proposed new “Social Consumption” sites will have to put in place “procedures to ensure that consumers are not overserved” and have plans “to assist Consumers who may be impaired in finding means of transportation.”
All well and good. But the regulations don’t address what happens when the “overserved” decide to get behind the wheel. That can only be done by legislation and thus far lawmakers seem to be in no great hurry to do so — despite the fact that the state already has 23 licensed recreational marijuana shops and more than twice as many medical marijuana facilities.
Governor Charlie Baker filed a bill last January that would apply the equivalent of the state’s open container law for alcohol to marijuana. No one should be smoking behind the wheel, period, and loose or unsealed packages of pot would be prohibited anywhere within easy reach.
It would also authorize courts to take judicial notice that ingesting THC, the active chemical in marijuana, can and does impair motorists. Most important, it would mandate that any driver pulled over by police for suspicion of driving under the influence who then refuses parts of the 12-step Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) protocol would lose their license for at least six months — in the same way anyone who refuses a Breathalyzer test for the presence of alcohol does now.
Baker’s bill also increased the number of DRE-trained police officers from the current 150 to 350 statewide. The DRE program is coordinated by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, with support from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and is generally viewed as the best way to measure impairment absent a Breathalyzer equivalent for pot.
The DRE assessment, which includes aspects of a field sobriety test and examination of the driver’s eyes and blood pressure, among other things, may not be foolproof, but it’s the best tool we’ve got at the moment.
And most of all, it would provide the needed deterrent, sending a message that driving under the influence is inherently risky and should be curtailed.
The DRE protocol and other aspects of the Baker bill were based on the near-unanimous recommendations of a special commission assigned to update the state’s law to address drugged driving.
And the governor’s office points to statistics compiled between 2013 and 2017 (the state’s first medical marijuana facility opened in 2015) that showed 30 percent of drivers in fatal accidents had drugs in their system at the time of the crash. Marijuana was the most prevalent of those drugs. In other words, stoned driving needs to be taken much more seriously than it has been so far. And if Massachusetts is to now throw in social consumption sites and make bud bars the equivalent of the local pub, it needs the tools to keep its roads safe.
Remember, advocates of the successful marijuana legalization initiative said they just wanted the drug regulated like alcohol. That ought to extend to safeguards against impaired driving, and when legislators shake the sand out of their shoes and return to the business of lawmaking, they ought to put it near the top of their agenda.