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Why Marijuana DUIs Are a Problem Right Now (For You)

Chris Roberts

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Far from being the ideal companion for a long road trip, cannabis is currently one of the least-best friend for motorists—and will remain to be regardless of what happens with the recreational-marijuana legalization measures on the ballot in five states tomorrow.

Like it or not, stoned driving is a thing. Those neat studies that show stoned drivers are safer than drunk drivers are indeed neat, but for the moment, they don’t matter. (As it is, a lot of things are better than a drunk driver—which doesn’t necessarily make them great.)

Police and prohibitionists like to point to a study, conducted by our friends at the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, that revealed a big jump in the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes testing positive for marijuana in Washington state.

Seventeen percent of fatal crashes involved a driver with cannabis in his on her system in 2014, up from 8 percent in 2013, AAA found—a “doubling” that’s been bandied about as an excuse to keep weed illegal.

The number of drivers involved in DUI situations who tested positive for cannabis has also increased, from 19 percent to 33 percent.

Notably, the former study did not say whether or not marijuana was a factor in any of those crashes. Nor did the second study indicate if cannabis was the sole intoxicant or if the driver was also impaired by alcohol.

Both demonstrate the problems with cannabis as it pertains to stoned driving.

Unlike nearly every other consumable put into our bodies, cannabis is fat soluble, meaning THC stays in fat cells. Alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine—those substances are water soluble, meaning residual evidence of their consumption is literally pissed away in a matter of days, while THC metabolites in fat cells can remain for weeks or longer, if you’re a heavy user.

The takeaway is that unlike alcohol, where a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent constitutes intoxicated driving, there is no universally-accepted standard for stoned driving.

If Californians do indeed approve Prop. 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act that legalizes possession of up to an ounce for any adult 21 and over, they will also approve a study to examine the effect of legalization on highway behavior and traffic study—and, possibly, a standard for intoxication.

In other states including Washington and Colorado, five nanograms per milliliter of blood is the standard of impairment, and a test yielding that result or higher can result in a DUI.

There’s an argument to be made that that’s too low, as the current threshold for a positive test in the NFL and in prison is 15 nanograms per milliliter. Could you imagine an NFL running back allowed to go out and run into a wall of 300-pound men out to kill him with a blood-alcohol content of triple the legal limit? No, you could not.

So, quite possibly, the 5 nanogram threshold may not be applied in California.

Another issue, once there is a standard, is how to quickly and accurately determine whether a driver has exceeded it. Currently, the gold standard for determining the level of THC metabolites is a blood test. For that reason, several teams of scientists are working to develop hand-held “marijuana breathalyzers” that can quickly and accurately determine the level of THC in a person’s system via saliva.

Academics at Stanford University say they’ve developed a device that can detect THC concentrations of between zero and 50 nanograms.

As for intoxication, they believe that it could range from 2 to 25 nanograms—a wide range indeed, and five times more permissive than the standard in Washington and Colorado.

So what is stoned driving, really—and how can you avoid it?

Most likely, in the short term highway patrol officers and police will pull over drivers who show signs of impairment—weaving, erratic driving, perhaps even speeding.

Anyone pulled over on suspicion of intoxication will administer the same battery of tests given at DUI checkpoints.

Drivers will be asked to follow a finger, a pen, or a flashlight with their eyes, recite the alphabet, and walk a line.

If they can do those, they might be OK—but if a cop smells cannabis in the car or finds it, there could be probable cause for a DUI.

As it is, Prop. 64 also includes a provision outlawing open containers of cannabis.

That would include a packed pipe in the ashtray – which, if found, could also result in a DUI if the officer isn’t satisfied with your roadside DUI test. In any case, it’s best to leave the sesh for when you get where you’re going.

You can keep up with all of HIGH TIMES’ marijuana news right here.

For complete Election 2016 coverage, click here.

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