Pubdate: Sun, 17 Apr 2016
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Gary Robbins


UC San Diego will try to develop a faster, better way to determine 
whether drivers are high on marijuana through a study prompted by the 
possibility that California voters will approve the recreational use 
of pot in November.

The $1.8 million project was commissioned by the Legislature, which 
said sobriety tests currently used by law enforcement aren't ideal 
for spotting drivers impaired by marijuana.

Researchers at the university plan to use driving simulators to study 
people's behavior while they're high on pot and formulate sobriety 
exercises that motorists would have to pass on a hand-held device, 
such as an iPad.

Studies of this type are uncommon in the United States.

The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, 
meaning that it has no accepted medical use and possesses a high 
potential for abuse. As a result of this categorization, scientists 
said it can take as long as 18 months to obtain federally sanctioned 
marijuana for research.

But the government is under pressure to reclassify marijuana because 
studies of pot have identified some clear medicinal benefits. 
Nationally, there also has been growing societal acceptance of the 
drug for medical and recreational uses.

Political experts said a measure to legalize recreational marijuana 
in California is likely to qualify for the Nov. 8 ballot, and the 
prospect of the nation's most populous state approving that measure 
is raising questions about everything from "drugged driving" to where 
pot would be sold. Such issues haven't been fully resolved, even 
though California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996.

"We're not trying to punish people; we're trying to prevent 
accidents," Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, who was a California 
Highway Patrol officer for 28 years, said of the sobriety-screening 
project at UC San Diego.

"We need roadside tools that detect whether a driver is impaired by 
marijuana. This program could have national implications," he added.

At present, law-enforcement officers in the state have other options 
for assessing whether a driver has been impaired by marijuana.

They can administer a field sobriety test, which requires drivers to 
perform certain physical and mental tasks including standing on one 
leg and counting backward. That evaluation method has proven to be 
very useful in identifying people who have been drinking alcohol, but 
scientists said it doesn't always reveal whether a person is high on pot.

In some cases, an officer can subject a motorist to a blood test, 
which can reveal the presence of THC, the main active ingredient in 
marijuana. But this analysis doesn't gauge exactly when a person used 
the drug, and the level of THC doesn't necessarily correlate to how 
high an individual is.

The UC San Diego study will aim to help clarify matters.

"We want to be able to determine if a motorist is impaired by 
marijuana, how impaired they are and how long that impairment will 
last," said Igor Grant, chair of psychiatry at the university and 
director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research.

"We also would like to measure the strength of the marijuana and how 
the potency relates to impairment," he added.

One of Grant's colleagues, psychiatry professor Thomas Marcotte, 
said: "The ultimate goal is to find a way to determine if a motorist 
is impaired by marijuana by examining various body fluids (blood, 
saliva, breath) and cognitive testing that could be done at the roadside."

Barth Wilsey, a UC San Diego physician who is also involved in the 
study, said "People tend to experience distorted time and have 
problems with memory when stoned. We aim to see whether these and 
other marijuana-related impairments might be detectable with tests on 
an iPad that could be used in the field by law-enforcement officers."

It's unclear whether the legalization of marijuana for recreational 
use will lead to a large, persistent and clearly proven increase in 
traffic accidents and fatalities. Recreational marijuana is currently 
legal in four states and the District of Columbia. Colorado led the 
way in late 2012.

The Colorado Highway Patrol and Denver police have reported a sharp 
rise in the number of motorists who were ticketed for driving while 
impaired by marijuana. But law-enforcement officials said they're 
just beginning to collect the kind of data they'll need to understand 
the impact of Colorado's marijuana regulations.

Even so, the potential public-safety challenges worry Lackey, who 
wrote in a newspaper column last year that "If California's 
experience legalizing recreational marijuana will be anything like 
Colorado's, we will have a very serious drug-impaired driving problem 
on our hands that inevitably will increase the number of fatal 
traffic accidents."

The California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of 
Marijuana Laws, or NORML, has a different take on the matter.

"Yes, there has been an increase in the number of drivers testing 
positive for marijuana in Colorado, Washington, California and other 
states," said Dale Gieringer, state coordinator for California NORML. 
"However, none of these states show a concomitant increase in 
accident rates. On the contrary, accident and DUI rates in California 
have generally been on the decline even as marijuana positives have increased."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom