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Marijuana and driving: A high priority for cops

Susan Ladika

Colorado and Washington now let you possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, but it won’t give you an excuse to be high behind the wheel.

“Don’t think you get a free pass because (you think) we only know how to arrest someone for impairment due to alcohol,” says Robert Calkins, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol.

Calkins says people always will be arrested for driving under the influence, whether it’s related to alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription medication.

The nonprofit lobbying group NORML, which supports legalization of marijuana for all uses, frowns on smoking pot if you plan to get behind the wheel of your car. 

Just as someone who has been drinking alcohol is advised to ride with a designated driver or wait till they sober up to drive, “the same practices ought to apply for cannabis,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML.

What counts as being too high to drive?

In both Washington and Colorado, laws approved by voters let anyone at least 21 years old possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational use. But the means of judging whether someone is driving while impaired varies in the two states.

In Washington, driving with a THC blood-content level of 5 nanograms per milliliter is illegal. In Colorado, no such limit was set. THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main mind-altering chemical in marijuana.

But that doesn’t mean Colorado is turning a blind eye if someone drives while impaired by marijuana. Sgt. Mike Baker, a spokesman for the Colorado State Patrol, says: “Marijuana is not a new or unfamiliar drug, and our troopers are well-trained and actively prepared to address impaired driving related to marijuana use. 

Driving under the influence of drugs is not uncommon. A 2011 survey found that nearly 4 percent of people age 12 and older in the U.S. reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs during the previous year. Those between 18 and 25 years old reported the greatest rate of driving under the influence of drugs – nearly 12 percent.

In Colorado, troopers look for signs of impairment during all traffic stops, regardless of whether you’re pulled for having an expired tag or for weaving from one lane into another, Baker says.

If a Colorado trooper suspects you’re impaired, you may be asked to step out of your car and perform a roadside sobriety test. If a trooper suspects drugs are the cause of the impairment, a specially trained trooper may be summoned. These experts do further evaluations, try to determine the type of drug involved and ask you to submit to a blood test, Baker says.

While there’s no set THC level that indicates impairment, Colorado laws indicate impairment “to the slightest degree” is illegal, Baker says.

Since Colorado’s new marijuana law took effect Dec. 10, more than a dozen people have been cited for drug-impaired driving by the State Patrol, according to Baker. More than 250 others have been cited for driving while impaired by alcohol, drugs or both.

The Washington State Patrol also calls in “drug recognition” experts if a trooper suspects someone is driving while impaired by drugs, Calkins says. Furthermore, a medical professional, such as a paramedic, may draw the driver’s blood for testing.

Although Washington state law now sets a limit for the THC content of someone’s blood, results from blood tests aren’t returned for days or weeks, so motorists are cited based on other factors, such as how they were driving, how they do on a field sobriety test, and what their blood pressure and pulse levels are, he says.

About 8 percent of those cited for DUI in Washington are impaired by drugs, Calkins says, and people often have used more than one drug, or a combination of drugs and alcohol.

Concerns from NORML, MADD

While NORML opposes driving while under the influence, Armentano is concerned about relying on a set standard to determine whether someone is marijuana-impaired. His concerns include conflicting studies on whether increased THC concentrations increase the risk for crashes, wide variations in how marijuana affects behavior and differences in how marijuana is absorbed by each user. 

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is making a greater effort to reach out to the survivors and families of victims of drugged drivers, or those who combined alcohol and drugs. “It has become more and more of a concern across the country,” MADD President Jan Withers says.

Referring to the Colorado and Washington marijuana laws, Withers says: “Whether it’s legal or not, our concern is impaired driving.”


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