Pubdate: Thu, 12 May 2016
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2016 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Tracey Kaplan

Keeping Stoned Drivers Off the Road


Controversial Bill Would Set Standard for How Much Pot Is Too Much to 
Be Behind the Wheel

Growing acceptance of medical marijuana and an initiative to legalize 
recreational pot use in California are stoking a debate over how to 
keep stoned drivers off the roads.

While driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal in all 50 
states, determining when a motorist is too stoned to drive isn't as 
easy as it sounds. Unlike alcohol, the active ingredient in marijuana 
can linger in the body long after any noticeable effects of the drug wear off.

In 12 states, driving with any trace of marijuana in the body is a 
criminal offense, and in five others, the presence of a designated 
amount of marijuana's active ingredient in a driver's blood triggers 
an automatic conviction.

But California doesn't have a legal limit. As a result, prosecutors 
complain it can be difficult to convince a jury to convict a driver 
based on observations by witnesses or police, along with blood-level 
results that aren't set in stone.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen is sponsoring a 
controversial bill to create a California standard. He believes the 
bill strikes a reasonable balance by requiring evidence of impairment 
along with confirmation of marijuana ingredients in the driver's 
blood. It more closely resembles a law adopted in Colorado, one of 
four states that has legalized recreational marijuana in the past 
four years, rather than laws in states where firm legal limits or 
zero-tolerance policies trigger a likely conviction.

"No rational person would dispute that driving under the influence of 
marijuana is dangerous," said Rosen, who proposed the bill being 
carried by Campbell Democrat Evan Low and Palmdale Republican Tom 
Lackey. "This is an important public safety measure."

Not everyone agrees, including Santa Clara County Public Defender Molly O'Neal.

"Traffic violations have historically disproportionately impacted 
people of color and the poor," she said, "and have served to capture 
them in a system of fines and fees from which they cannot escape."

Researchers on both sides of the issue have mounds of evidence 
suggesting that legal-limit laws either are the best solution or that 
they go too far.

"The data are incomplete," said Dr. Igor Grant, chair of the 
psychiatry department at UC San Diego and director of its Center for 
Medicinal Cannabis Research, which was awarded $1.8 million by the 
Legislature to develop a field test for marijuana intoxication. "I 
think we need to have full medical evidence as to whether that's the 
correct standard or not if we are going to prosecute people."

It's an issue the entire country is grappling with. By next year, 
recreational marijuana is likely to be legal in a quarter of the 
nation, and medicinal use is already legal in about half the states. 
Recent polls show recreational marijuana initiatives headed for the 
November ballot leading in California, Maine, Michigan and Massachusetts.

This week, the American Automobile Association's traffic safety 
foundation released a study of arrest data, which concluded that it 
is impossible to accurately determine marijuana impairment from a 
blood-level test. However, in second study, the foundation reported 
that the share of drivers in Washington who had recently used 
marijuana and were involved in fatal crashes more than doubled in 
2013 to 17 percent after the state legalized pot in 2012. In 
Colorado, which has a population one-seventh the size of California's 
and where recreational pot is legal, state highway patrol officers 
last year arrested 665 drivers who had marijuana in their systems, 
compared with 674 in 2014.

(California does not currently track how many people are arrested or 
prosecuted annually on suspicion of driving under the influence of cannabis.)

The AAA foundation recommends that states replace blood tests like 
the one in the Rosen bill and instead rely on a combination of police 
officers trained to detect signs of impairment, such as eyelid 
tremor, backed up by a test for the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol, 
or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. California 
lawmakers also are considering a Senate bill along those lines. SB 
1462 would allow police to use a preliminary roadside saliva test to 
establish reasonable cause to believe a driver is stoned, but the 
test could not be used in court as proof.

The bill proposed by Rosen and carried by Low and Lackey, AB 2740, 
would set a legal limit on THC of 5 nanograms per milliliter, require 
corroborating evidence of impairment, and carry significant penalties 
similar to drunken driving, including a six-month driver's license 
suspension and possible jail time or service on a freeway work crew. 
Washington, Colorado and Montana use the same legal limit, while 
Pennsylvania, Nevada and Ohio have set lower thresholds. Some 
researchers say drivers can be significantly impaired at 5 nanograms, 
but others say that may not be the case, especially for frequent users.

Previous efforts in the past four years to pass similar bills died in 
committee. The current attempt to set a legal limit was recently 
approved by the Assembly public safety committee after Rosen and 
internationally known cannabis researcher Marilyn Huestis, who 
recently retired from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, testified.

"This bill is absolutely going to reduce the number of people killed 
and seriously injured," Huestis said in a phone interview.

Rosen, one of only a few district attorneys to support initiatives 
that softened some of the state's strict sentencing laws for 
nonviolent offenders, spent about $6,000 of his county budget to fly 
Huestis in. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana 
Laws, which opposes the bill, criticized the public expense, but the 
Rosen administration defended the cost as for the public good.

The day after the hearing, a company trying to develop a marijuana 
breathalyzer test announced that Huestis had agreed to serve as a 
scientific adviser, prompting NORML to claim her testimony was 
compromised by a conflict of interest that she failed to divulge to 
the committee. Rosen's office said they were not aware of her 
affiliation with Cannibix but added it wouldn't have made a 
difference. In a phone interview, Huestis said the advisory role had 
no influence on her opinion, which was formed after decades of research.

Currently, the bill is under review by the Assembly appropriations 
committee, which will decide May 27 whether to allow it to move ahead.

Low acknowledged that passing the bill may prove challenging, partly 
because some of his colleagues contend that doing so before the UC 
San Diego study is finished in three years would be "putting the cart 
before the horse."

But the Rosen administration contends the state needs to try to deter 
drugged driving now by setting a legal limit. Lackey, a retired CHP 
officer, also defended the need for a bill, saying driving while high 
will prove to be a bigger problem than people think.

"It's kind of like alcohol and drunken driving was in the '70s and 
80," he said, "when it wasn't taken seriously."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom