Pubdate: Wed, 11 May 2016
Source: Metro Times (Detroit, MI)
Column: Higher Ground
Copyright: 2016 C.E.G.W./Times-Shamrock
Author: Larry Gabriel


One of the burning questions about cannabis use is: How high is too 
high when operating a motor vehicle? It's befuddling to the legal 
system, as driving law is not moving as quickly as marijuana law.

Many want to establish a "per se" level of THC in someone's blood 
that indicates being under the influence. That comes from loosely 
equating alcohol and marijuana intoxication. In Michigan, the per se 
blood alcohol content for driving under the influence is .08. 
Regardless of a person's behavior, if his or her blood alcohol level 
is .08 or above, they are legally under the influence. With 
marijuana, it's not clear what that level is.

HB 5204, now working its way through the state legislature, would set 
up the Impaired Driving Safety Commission to "research and recommend 
a scientifically supported threshold of THC bodily content to provide 
evidence of a per se impaired driving in this state."

That sounds pretty straightforward. THC, one of the active chemicals 
in marijuana, is an intoxicant, and pretty much nobody wants 
intoxicated people behind the wheel of a car. It's dangerous. And 
taking a science-based approach to marijuana in general is how 
government should be approaching the laws that regulate it.

"This does seem like a progressive step if the goal is to set a per 
se amount of THC in the driver's blood," says Todd Berg, an attorney 
at Michigan Auto Law. "It needs to be set for people who are lawfully 
using marijuana right now, because right now they're driving around 
at extreme legal risk to themselves ... If a per se level was 
established for marijuana concentrations in a driver's body, it would 
help law enforcement and it would help people in general to know when 
and if consumption is running afoul of the law."

The commission would be appointed by the governor and would include 
the Michigan State Police director, a medical doctor, a forensic 
toxicologist, a medical marijuana patient, and two university 
professors. This is where the will of those involved matters. Are 
they willing to take an impartial look at the science? If that were 
the case back in 1970, marijuana wouldn't have been listed as a 
Schedule I drug in the first place. Information can be cherry-picked 
from either side of the debate.

Even if commission members are of good will, it's still a tough 
subject. For one thing, even though efforts to regulate "marijuana 
like alcohol" have been a hallmark of legalization efforts, alcohol 
and cannabis affect people very differently. When it comes to driving 
while stoned, studies have found that alcohol users drive in a more 
risky manner while marijuana users tend to compensate for being high 
by being more careful. The conclusion of a 1997 study reported in 
Accident Analysis and Prevention, was the same as numerous others.

"Based on alcohol and drug testing of the full range of patients ... 
alcohol is clearly the major drug associated with serious crashes and 
greater injury. Patients testing positive for illicit drugs 
(marijuana, opiates, and cocaine), in the absence of alcohol, were in 
crashes very similar to those of patients with neither alcohol nor 
drugs. When other relevant variables were considered, these drugs 
were not associated with more severe crashes or greater injury."

That doesn't mean that you can't get severely impaired from 
marijuana. But it's different from alcohol, and that needs to be 
parsed as part of the discussion. So how much is too much? Some 
states have set limits.

"Colorado has set 5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/m) as a reasonable 
inference that you are impaired," Berg says.

Montana and Washington state each set a 5 ng/m limit; Nevada and Ohio 
set it at 2, while Pennsylvania is set at 1. A 2015 study conducted 
at the University of Iowa National Advanced Driving Simulator, 
however, says that a 13.1 ng/m level is equivalent to the .08 blood 
alcohol content for impairment.

If the Iowa study is true, then every state that has a ng/m limit has 
set it artificially low and put people in danger of prosecution when 
they are not impaired.

"To establish law when there is no science-based foundation for that 
law is just a bad move; it's not smart," says Neil Franklin, 
executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a 
national group of mostly former police officers. "The science is 
still early in this area."

LEAP endorses a system where Drug Recognition Experts, trained to 
evaluate a person's ability to operate a motor vehicle safely, are 
used rather than a per se level to determine intoxication. This is 
especially important because THC lingers in the blood long after a 
person no longer feels high - sometimes for weeks.

"This is probably a way for the legislature to make the roads safer 
and reconcile the law with marijuana and other aspects of the law in 
Michigan," says Michigan Auto Law's Berg.

Regardless, this is something that has to be done right. Some might 
look at this as just a bit of housekeeping that needs to be done to 
keep the driving laws up to date with reality on the ground. In 
addition to medical marijuana, there are some 17 Michigan 
municipalities that have decriminalized or legalized possession of 
small amounts of marijuana for adults.

The war on drugs has never been conducted equally, and some might see 
this as an opportunity to get back at marijuana users by setting the 
threshold artificially low.

As marijuana prohibition is pushed back, there are a lot of other 
areas that will be impacted. Driving law is important, but it's just 
one adjustment of many that will come.

Prince and pain

Prince was considered a guitar wizard on par with Jimi Hendrix when 
he first hit the pop charts. In stark contrast to Hendrix, Prince was 
known to follow a no drugs or alcohol policy in his band, and 
reportedly did not personally indulge or allow anyone in his touring 
bands to use.

Prince seemed to sneer at those who indulged in marijuana and other 
mood-enhancing substances. In addition, he was a vegan, following a 
diet free of meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs, or honey. His 
membership in the Jehovah's Witness religion seemed to double down on 
his rejection of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

So it's a surprise to me that discussions of his untimely death at 57 
have centered on possible painkiller abuse or addiction. One report 
attributed to his late half brother claims that the brother used to 
obtain Percocet for Prince and he had witnessed the entertainer 
taking them. News reports also claim some of Prince's close 
associates had arranged an intervention that came one day too late. 
The representative from a rehab center was among those who found him 
dead in an elevator at Paisley Park.

There are two points to make here. One is that opioid painkiller 
addiction is at an epidemic level in the United States, even though 
pill users often don't consider themselves addicts because 
painkillers are legal. Many pill users turn to heroin when their 
supply of pills is cut off.

My second point is that maybe Prince would still be alive if he had 
used marijuana. Here's a headline from Newsweek to consider: "In 
states with medical marijuana, painkiller deaths drop by 25 percent."

The 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine was funded by the 
National Institutes of Health and concludes: "Medical cannabis laws 
are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose 
mortality rates."

Reports claim that Prince used opioids for hip pain brought on by his 
athletic performances. He had some kind of surgery on his hip about 
10 years back and had ceased doing splits as part of the show.

Had Prince not sneered at cannabis as part of his pain management, he 
may well still be alive.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom