Colorado’s new marijuana DUI laws and the absurd

In Colorado this past Tuesday a new bill which aims to curtail and punish driving while affected by marijuana passed through a legislative committee unanimously. This comes off the heels of the successful passing of Amendment 64 in November which allows for the sale and use of marijuana for recreational use to adults.

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Photo by atroszko

While there was no arguments made regarding whether stoned individuals should be driving – they shouldn’t – there was concern expressed by legalization advocates over the methods involved with busting a driver for a weed DUI and the legal THC level limit of five nanograms.

In Arizona the questionable practice of prosecuting motorists for a marijuana-related DUI without evidence by law enforcement officials was upheld by a court this month. This has been a controversial issue because, unlike alcohol, marijuana has no breathalyzer equivalency; though a screening may be administered, it does not work in the same way in determining current intoxication. Whereas alcohol is present in the body for a relatively short time (during which it affects cognition and reaction, as we all know) and is easily detected while it is, marijuana leaves detectable metabolites in the user’s system for up to two weeks after use (long, long after its effects wear off) – a urine screening cannot differentiate between someone who took a couple puffs last weekend but is now completely sober and someone who smoked minutes before the test and is actually “influenced.” Despite the obvious ambiguity here, Arizona decided to uphold their practices which can be used to convict a citizen of a DUI despite driving completely sober.

Though I doubt many would say they would prefer a driver who’s stoned off his rocker over a stone cold sober one, it seems likely there will be no especially consistent and fair way to enforce such legislation in practice without resorting to Arizona’s draconian approach, which is quite problematic. And then there is the question of medical users and whether they will get special exemption.

So let’s step back and rethink the primary purpose and use of a laws that prohibit driving while intoxicated on alcohol (and presumably, marijuana): to promote public safety. I don’t need to have a clinical study done to tell you that it does not impair drivers to nearly the same extent as alcohol. And surprisingly, there actually have been few scientific studies on the question, though there is this entertaining trial a television station in Washington conducted recently. The video doesn’t present a clear answer to the dilemma, other than that the five nanogram limit is probably far too low of a threshold and that in general the degree of driving impairment resulting from specific amounts of THC levels is difficult to quantify consistently from driver to driver. As the driving instructor and policemen noted, most of them could drive safely well past the arbitrary five nanogram limit.

So what’s to be done? Traffic cops should treat the situation as any other. If a vehicle is seen driving unsafely then it should be pulled over; if a violation has already occurred then write the ticket or bring out the cuffs. If the driver is visibly affected in some way, then follow standard procedures and administer the dozen or so sobriety tests – if passed then THC levels should be irrelevant.

No, this arbitrary legal limit of five nanograms is not intended to preserve public safety but rather to serve as a push back from legalization detractors as a way to punish individuals who are abiding a law with which they disagree. Instead, if legislators were serious about preventing vehicular deaths they would be in favor of public service announcements and other education campaigns (not laden in absurd DARE-like propaganda) encouraging individuals to use marijuana responsibly. They would also be more concerned about matters like why our labor laws are such that many Americans are so sleep deprived that thousands of major accidents occur on the road every year as a result of nodding off at the wheel or lowered reaction speeds, because they are unable to get the rest and relaxation needed to drive safely.

When it comes to public safety it is important to examine the issue from all sides. But when the efforts of our legislators are arbitrary and serve only to punish law abiding citizens, public safety is clearly not at the forefront of their intentions and the will of the people is not being served.