The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued a unanimous ruling Sept. 19, voiding court testimony based on roadside sobriety tests administered to drivers suspected of driving while high. As the state prepares to roll out legalization, the ruling helps address ongoing questions about how cannabis might affect driving.
An Important Ruling
According to the Boston Globe, the court found that while sobriety tests are effective when it comes to finding drunk drivers, there is no scientific consensus that the same roadside sobriety tests are effective or reliable at finding drivers under the influence of cannabis.
The court stated that while there is clear scientific evidence that such field sobriety tests can be used to measure blood alcohol content of at least 0.08 percent, no scientific evidence exists showing a correlation between performance on these tests and “marijuana intoxication.”
“Because the effects of marijuana may vary greatly from one individual to another, and those effects are as yet not commonly known,” the decision said, “neither a police officer nor a lay witness who has not been qualified as an expert may offer an opinion as to whether a driver was under the influence of marijuana.”
Defendant Thomas Gerhardt was stopped in Millbury in February 2013 by a state trooper for allegedly driving with his lights off. The trooper testified that he saw smoke inside the vehicle and smelled pot, and that Gerhardt acknowledged smoking.
Gerhardt was unable to pass the “walk-and-turn” test, the trooper said, and struggled to stand on one foot. The trial has been key to the larger dispute over which evidence can be admitted in cases like Gerhardt’s.
Rebecca Jacobstein, Gerhardt’s attorney, called the ruling a victory over “junk science.” She added: “The big take-away here is that for the government to introduce something as science, it actually has to be science.”
Courts Strike Down Roadside Sobriety Tests for Weed
This is a real sign of hope, as the question of “marijuana-impaired driving” is widely misunderstood. For instance, it is true that Colorado has seen an increase in road fatalities since legalization in 2012, as well as an increase in cannabis-related driving offenses.
But the increase in fatalities is consistent with the national trend, and is probably related to low oil prices. A 2011 study found a reduction in traffic fatalities in states that had legalized medical marijuana.
This is likely because folks have been turning to legal cannabis instead of alcohol—which impairs driving far more dramatically than pot.
Last December, Gov. Charlie Baker delayed the implementation of the Bay State’s voter-approved marijuana legalization initiative by six months. Licensing of cannabis shops in Massachusetts is now set to begin July 1, 2018.