Pubdate: Wed, 16 May 2012
Source: Metro Times (Detroit, MI)
Copyright: 2012 C.E.G.W./Times-Shamrock
Author: Larry Gabriel


Last Week, We Got Some Stuff Wrong - but Here's The Straight Dope

In my last column I stepped in a pile of doo-doo regarding the
implications of the April 17 state Court of Appeals decision in People
vs. Koon. I said that a strict interpretation of the ruling meant that
any medical marijuana patient could not legally drive.

That is not true.

Quite a few medical marijuana activists took me to task about that,
most pointedly attorney John Targowski of Kalamazoo. There are several
potholes and nuances here that I didn't take into account. In
addition, I didn't know about a key 2010 state Supreme Court decision.

Let's back up a moment. People vs. Koon is a Grand Traverse County
case in which a medical marijuana patient was charged with driving
while impaired because there was THC present in his system. The Court
of Appeals ruling read: "... in the motor vehicle code, the
legislature has provided a definition of what constitutes being under
the influence of marijuana: The presence of any amount ... of marijuana."

This is dicey right off, because nobody has marijuana in their system
unless they took a leaf and shoved it directly into a vein. However,
because the language of the motor vehicle code and a source I spoke
with said the "M" word, I let myself slip and wrote that "marijuana is
detectable in the blood for several weeks." That is incorrect and I
knew better.

When marijuana is ingested through smoking, some elements of the
substance are released into the bloodstream. Most pertinent to this
discussion are THC, CBD and a few dozen other cannabinoids. THC is the
cannabinoid at the root of marijuana hysteria because it's the one
most directly responsible for the high. Most edible preparations of
marijuana involve a process where THC (and probably some other
cannabinoids) are infused into butter or oils. Although the Alice B.
Toklas recipe called for throwing the plant material directly into a
batch of brownies back in the day, marijuana cuisine has moved far
beyond that stage.

Here's where the nuance comes in. THC is only present in the blood for
a very limited amount of time that varies based upon factors such as
how much was in the marijuana to start with. That can vary from about
2 percent (not very potent) to about 35 percent (what some might refer
to as "killer weed"). Other factors include how often a person uses
marijuana, and, when it comes to testing, whether it is whole blood or
plasma being tested and the sensitivity of the equipment being used.

For most people other than chronic users, the body processes the THC
within several hours and turns it into the benign metabolite carboxy
THC (THC-COOH). Targowski says that's two to 12 hours for most people.
But everyday users have THC in their systems most of the time - though
this does not necessarily mean they are impaired by it all the time.

THC-COOH, meanwhile, can stay in your system for up to several weeks,
and that was enough to get you busted for driving while impaired -
until the 2010 state Supreme Court decision in People vs. Feezel. In
that case, the court acknowledged that THC-COOH is not a Schedule 1
substance, as THC is. THC-COOH is only a byproduct of your body
processing THC and is not psychoactive.

"Thus, anyone can drive with any amount of THC-COOH, patients or not"
and not be legally impaired, Targowski wrote in an e-mail.

Sorry for the false alarm, folks. However, it is also prudent to note
that not all law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges
understand the difference between THC and its metabolite THC-COOH. In
reaction to the Koon decision, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton
told the Flint News: "The problem is the active ingredient in
marijuana stays in your system for 30 days or longer some times.
That's going to make it difficult for medical marijuana users to drive a 

And he's considered a moderate on the issue of medical

So while you may ultimately be vindicated in an appeal, it appears you
could well be charged and forced to go through the irritation of
having to defend yourself on a DWI charge. It may be helpful to learn
what the prevailing opinion in your municipality is.

Despite the prevailing tax-and-regulate-like-alcohol mantra of the
legalize-it crowd, alcohol intoxication and its presence in the blood
serve as a poor analogy for the THC process. Paul Armentano, deputy
director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana
Laws, says, "It doesn't make any sense to make per se standards like
there are for alcohol. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding.
There are people who say we need a breathalyzer test like there is for
alcohol. That is not an impairment test. We have a long history of
science supporting a blood alcohol level that correlates with
impairment. We have all of this science behind drinking and driving;
we don't have that science with THC."

Armentano has done a lot of writing on the science about marijuana and
has testified in numerous legal cases as an expert witness.

The research that has been done tends to downplay the role of THC in
traffic accidents, particularly in more experienced users. A study
reported in a 2010 issue of the journal Pharmacology, titled
"Tolerance and cross-tolerance to neurocognitive effects of THC and
alcohol in heavy cannabis users," found that: "Alcohol significantly
impaired critical tracking, divided attention, and stop-signal
performance. THC generally did not affect task performance." They
concluded, "[T]he present study generally confirms that heavy cannabis
users develop tolerance to the impairing effects of THC on
neurocognitive task performance."

Alcohol intoxication and THC intoxication are not directly comparable.
Different standards need to be established. Armentano and others say
that roadside testing in combination with other factors such as a
blood test and the subject's interaction with the law enforcement
officer need to be taken into account.

"According to the available literature, the greatest percentage of
subjects perform most adversely on performance and cognitive tests 20
to 40 minutes after inhalation then the effects of the substance
starts to fall off after about 60 minutes," says Armentano. "But that
time frame does not correspond to peak THC levels in the blood, which
typically peak within two to five minutes after inhalation."

All of this refers to inhaled marijuana, not for preparations that
have been orally ingested. The digestive process is much slower.

That's enough science class for now. Remember that responsible drivers
don't get behind the wheel while impaired. Whatever they're using.

No surprise here: The city of Detroit has appealed the Court of
Appeals ruling in Coalition for a Safer Detroit v. Detroit Election
Commission to the Michigan Supreme Court. The city made the appeal on
the last day possible. At issue is whether the question of legalizing
possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults in Detroit should
be on the ballot. CSD ran a successful petition initiative on this in
2010 but the election commission, claiming that it was against state
law, chose not to put it on the ballot.

"The law is on our side," says Tim Beck of the CSD. "This is a
frivolous appeal; it's going to lose. We're going to let the legal
process take its course and we fully expect to be on the ballot in
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MAP posted-by: Matt