Pubdate: Wed, 29 Dec 2010
Source: Metro Times (Detroit, MI)
Column: Higher Ground
Copyright: 2010 Metro Times, Inc
Author: Larry Gabriel
Referenced: Michigan Supreme Court ruling
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Michigan)
Bookmark: (Cannabis and Driving)


When Is a Person 'Too High to Drive'?

It should have been easy to see that driving under the influence was 
going to come up when voters gave the thumbs up to medical marijuana 
in Michigan. Marijuana is an intoxicant that has some effects similar 
to alcohol and opiates. It would seem to be a good thing for medical 
marijuana patients to not drive while under the influence of the 
medication. That's a matter of public safety, and not just because 
police have been reported to lay in wait near compassion centers 
where marijuana smoking takes place in order to arrest drivers 
suspected of intoxication. Other patients have been charged with DUI 
after having been stopped for other traffic violations and divulging 
that they were medical marijuana patients.

"There are some things you don't need to tell, don't have to and 
shouldn't," says Brandy Zink, a spokesperson for the Michigan Chapter 
of Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana organization.

Hmm, maybe a variant on the old Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy for gays 
in the military is pertinent to the medical marijuana patient.

Zink notes that the odor of marijuana in your vehicle is probable 
cause for police to suspect intoxication, and the presence of 
marijuana might give police a clue. Either of those things could lead 
to a blood or urine test to figure out if you've ingested marijuana. 
Bad behavior might qualify you for closer scrutiny too.

This is way more complicated than it sounds and prompts a lot of 
questions that have not been answered on the legal tip. For instance, 
police test drunk-driving suspects for alcohol, the intoxicating 
ingredient in beer, wine and distilled spirits, in their blood. A 
blood alcohol content of .08 or higher makes you a drunk driver in 
Michigan. When it comes to marijuana, a legal limit for the presence 
of THC hasn't been established. What's more, the majority of 
marijuana tests are for metabolites created from marijuana as the 
body processes it; they mostly do not test for THC, the part of 
marijuana that gets you high. While some tests do identify the THC 
level, most tests are for 11-COOH-THC (also known by several other 
names), a byproduct metabolite that does not get you high but stays 
in the body much longer than the psychoactive ingredient.

Under the prohibition-zero tolerance approach, police need only prove 
the presence of these metabolites to establish that someone had used 
marijuana. This is fairly new territory. For law enforcement in the 
past, the focus was on arresting users for possession, not for 
impaired driving.

In June, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that, for registered 
medical marijuana patients, the presence of byproduct metabolites was 
not proof of intoxication at the time of citation - although there 
have been cases where police have charged drivers with medical 
marijuana cards for the presence of marijuana metabolites other than 
THC in their bloodstream since then. None of them have made it to trial.

Still, how does ingesting marijuana affect driving? In the past, 
there was no reason to figure out a level where legal impairment 
begins. Now medical marijuana patients want to know: How long do I 
have to wait before I can drive?

There is no established level of THC at which you are legally 
impaired for the purpose of driving. However, there are lots of 
opinions by experts and others involved. Attorney Matt Abel, of 
Cannabis Counsel TLC, says that THC, the substance in marijuana that 
gets you high, is out of your bloodstream in "four to six hours, 
although that doesn't mean someone has to wait that amount of time 
before they drive."

That seems based on the alcohol model where there is an established 
legal level. Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National 
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and expert witness on 
marijuana science issues, begs to differ. Armentano says THC 
intoxication for smoked marijuana has "about a two-hour window. If 
administered orally, we could be talking as long as four hours. This 
is a subject that has been studied. I'm taking calls on this subject 
every day now."

Armentano has also studied up on motor impairment caused by 
marijuana. "Acute intoxication from marijuana that could adversely 
affect motor skills lasts about 60 minutes. A study published just 
this past year on psychomotor impairment said that experienced users 
of the drug really didn't perform differently after they used marijuana."

Indeed, a study published this past fall in the journal 
Psychopharmacology, titled "Tolerance and cross-tolerance to 
neurocognitive effects of THC and alcohol in heavy cannabis users," 
reported: "In conclusion, the present study generally confirms that 
heavy cannabis users develop tolerance to the impairing effects of 
THC on neurocognitive task performance. Yet, heavy cannabis users did 
not develop cross-tolerance to the impairing effects of alcohol, and 
the presence of the latter even selectively potentiated THC effects 
on measures of divided attention."

Basically, they found that while drivers who smoked marijuana did not 
perform that badly on driving tests, adding alcohol to the mix was 
really bad. Nobody is saying that it's OK to drive while impaired by 
marijuana. However, when compared to alcohol use, the harms were much 
less. Or as Abel puts it, "marijuana is way safer than alcohol."

A 2007 research report from the Society for the Study of Addiction, 
"Developing limits for driving under cannabis," suggests a THC level 
of 7 to 10 nanograms per milliliter, which is analogous to .08 
percent blood alcohol content in terms of driving impairment.

But that just addresses the high. There are actually some 400 
different chemicals in marijuana, and indications that some of them 
are useful in treating some 30 different ailments. This prompts a few 
more questions from Abel: "What gives you the munchies? What relieves 
spasm? What causes short-term memory loss?"

Good questions all. They'll be addressed soon in another column.

People's initiative: Bringing medical marijuana to Michigan was the 
result of activists writing the proposed law and gathering enough 
signatures to put it on the ballot for a statewide vote. In short, it 
was a people's initiative rather than legislation from lawmakers. 
Well, here's another people's initiative that brought some populist 
justice to a pot arrest. According Montana's Billings Gazette, 
potential jurors staged a revolt in Missoula when the court tried to 
seat a jury to try a man for possession of about 1.5 grams of pot. 
The paper reported that one juror wondered out loud "why the county 
was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all." The judge 
asked whether anyone else agreed, and five of 27 potential jurors 
raised their hands (several others had already been dismissed because 
they said they wouldn't convict). "I thought, 'Geez, I don't know if 
we can seat a jury,'" the judge said.

The judge called a recess and arranged a deal for the defendant to 
make an Alford Plea, which is a guilty plea in which the defendant 
does not admit to the act and maintains his innocence, but admits 
that the prosecution could probably prove the charge. The idea sounds 
crazy but there is a lot of legal stuff I don't understand. However, 
it's apparent that citizens are beginning to understand when enough 
is enough in the drug war.  
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake