Cops, Science Still Can’t Figure Out Marijuana DUIs

Researchers Find Cannabis May Limit Some Driving Abilities
Photo by Getty Images

If you’re a sick person with a recommendation from a physician, medical marijuana is legal for you in Arizona. Driving a motor vehicle—not so much. Not if you smoke weed.

Arizona has a “zero-tolerance” policy for “drugged-driving,” which means that any trace of cannabis in the body is grounds for an automatic DUI. And since cannabis has the distinction of being fat-soluble —as opposed to alcohol, caffeine, cocaine and just about everything else, which are water-soluble and ergo expelled via urine or sweat within days of use—traces of marijuana can stay in the body for days or weeks after the effects of THC have worn off.

The rules around driving and marijuana in Nevada, where voters in November approved legal recreational cannabis, are only slightly less strict.

In Washington and Colorado, a driver is guilty of a marijuana-related DUI if a blood test reveals marijuana levels of five nanograms per milliliter or more. In Nevada, that standard is two nanograms, as NORML reveals, a standard lower than even federal Department of Transportation standards. (We need not remind you what the feds think of marijuana as a general rule.)

And the way the law is enforced, it’s a “per se offense”—meaning no impairment is necessary, only a positive urine or blood test.

This means there are people out on the road right now who are legally stoned—yet may have last felt the munchies days or weeks ago. And there are also drivers who are loaded to the gills on cannabis, who have no problem at all making precise turns and coming to complete stops at stop signs.

In other words, we know marijuana impairs drivers, and we know stoned driving is a problem—we just don’t know what to do about it, from detection to testing to punishment.

“You have people that are just baked, they have that Spicoli persona and yet they ace the driving test,” Chris Haslor, a former Colorado prosecutor now working in Nevada, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “You have others who are totally sober, and they flunk that blood test.”

Even drivers who fail the drug test are having their subsequent DUI charges dropped, after juries determined that no other signs of impairment were demonstrated. As the famous video below, filmed in Washington in the immediate wake of legalization shows, there are cannabis users who can smoke an awful, awful lot of pot before showing it.

Episodes like this are continuing, and have led researchers to call for an end to “minimum” thresholds like the ones in Nevada and Colorado—because, as has been demonstrated, they are ultimately meaningless, and punish people for engaging in otherwise lawful behavior.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to institute a rule that doesn’t work. I don’t understand the point of having a limit if that doesn’t tell you what you need to know,” said Ryan Vandrey, a researcher who works on marijuana-related issues at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in comments to the Gazette-Journal.

Even if there was a standard for intoxication, police would have no way of testing drivers for it. Currently, impairment is judged only by urine and blood testing—both of which can take a while to process. Several tech firms are working on “marijuana breathalyzers,” but even if a foolproof breathalyzer was developed, what would it reveal? The same standards that don’t necessarily indicate intoxication.

For now, the best practice for police is to “identify someone who is high using their observations,” the newspaper reported. This would include the basics: “whether someone has a ‘butterfly flutter’ to their eyelids, meaning they are almost twitching, or their eyes are bloodshot.”

Not to say that this is license to do what 26-year old Gagnan Singh does—rolling “fat blunts” while driving and then smoking them. If you’re high, and you know you’re high, it’s not safe to drive. You’re impaired. Mixing alcohol with cannabis is even worse—and will almost certainly guarantee you a DUI conviction if you’re caught, as has happened to several people in Arizona.

As for a reliable test that reveals impairment, “I don’t think we’re even close,” Vandrey said. “I haven’t solved it yet, but there’s a lot of smart people working on it.”

In the meantime, police will hand out DUIs to people who are legally sober—and people who have no business being on the road will be able to sail past unsuspecting police.

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