Driving under the influence of legal marijuana


Colorado had just celebrated two weeks of allowing licensed stores to sell marijuana for recreational purposes when along came the case of Keith Kilbey. He’s a typical twenty-three-year-old man and, to cement his place in the legal history books, he crashed his own car into a state patrol car and, as if he wanted to ensure he was noticed, the force was sufficient to push the patrol car into a second patrol car. The state police took a day to think about it and then a spokesperson boldly stepped forward to confirm it was suspected Mr Kilbey had been using marijuana.

That was a month ago and there’s still no clear statement of whether Mr Kilbey was driving with marijuana in his blood nor where he might have bought it. With both Colorado and Washington allowing people to buy pot for recreational purposes, there’s still no clear indication whether there’s an increase in the number of people driving under the influence.

We need to be very clear. While these two states were debating the change in their laws, a part of the political debate focused on the possible increase in danger to other road users. In fact, politicians are talking about this in Alaska where the next vote on legalization is about to take place. This would be a good thing except the debates are being run without any evidence. It’s all based on prejudices and assertions.

When it comes to alcohol, there’s a mass of evidence about the number of accidents in which drinking was a factor. There’s research setting blood alcohol concentration levels and reasoned argument about whether the current BAC of 0.08 is the right place to keep people safe. But there’s no comparable debate about pot. Indeed, there’s not even an agreed test to determine whether the driver is impaired. People metabolize the drug at different rates and have different levels of susceptibility. No expert or politician has proposed any test to set limits on smoking or ingesting the drug.

So here comes the unscientific pitch. Driving while high is illegal. But there’s no guidance on how long you should wait after smoking or eating a cannabis brownie. It could be just hours or days, Remember, laws look for more than five nanograms of THC per milliliter of your blood as evidence you have used pot. Once the chemical marker is found, that’s taken as sufficient evidence of the offense. Neither Colorado nor Washington require any evidence your driving was impaired. If you are regular user, the reality is you will almost certainly have this quantity of THC in your blood on a permanent basis. Yet you may be functioning perfectly.

If you are using the drug for medical purposes, you may be better as a result. For those of you who like numbers, Washington State Police found about 1,000 drivers with THC in the blood in both 2011 and 2012, but 745 tested positive in the first six months of 2013. DUI with pot may therefore be a more common problem.

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