Impaired drivers an issue for cities that legalize marijuana

Impaired drivers in states that legalize marijuana have forced police agencies to seek out technology that will help identify and charge offenders


By Rachel Engel, P1 Contributor

States that have legalized marijuana use are now grappling with how to deal with impaired drivers. The biggest hurdle facing law enforcement, according to Governing.com, is the lack of a uniformly-accepted way of measuring impairment.

It’s an issue that is commanding attention, after a 2015 report by the Governors Highway Safety Association showed that the number of fatal crashes involving marijuana surpassed the amount of those involving alcohol for the first time.

Simulating a roadside investigation of a potentially intoxicated driver, Robin Rocke, left, the Drug Evaluation Classification Coordinator for the Colorado Dept. of Transportation, evaluates the assessment skills of a state trooper. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Simulating a roadside investigation of a potentially intoxicated driver, Robin Rocke, left, the Drug Evaluation Classification Coordinator for the Colorado Dept. of Transportation, evaluates the assessment skills of a state trooper. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Research from the Highway Loss Data Institute also showed an increase in the number of insurance claims in three states after they legalized marijuana: Oregon, Washington and Colorado.

While the data exists to confirm an increase in crashes from the drug, law enforcement is limited in charing those suspected of impaired driving.

Reliably Identifying Impaired Drivers is a Struggle

While law enforcement officers have a variety of tools to determine alcoholic sobriety, from field tests to breathalyzers to blood tests, there are no accepted standards to measure marijuana levels in drivers.

In September, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled that the observations of police officers will be accepted against those suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana, though the observations cannot be used as the sole source of evidence.

City in Illinois Tests Device to Identify Impaired Drivers

Law enforcement officers in Carol Stream, Illinois, are the first in the state to test a device that will determine if an individual is operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of marijuana.

The test will consist of a mouth swab that will check for the presence of cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines and opiates like heroin, in addition to marijuana.

California, Colorado, Kansas and Michigan have also begun utilizing similar tests to determine impaired drivers, though it’s not clear if such test will be held up in court, according to one defense attorney.

California Pushes for Stricter Laws to Combat Impaired Drivers

A study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that the number of nighttime weekend drivers found to be under the influence of marijuana increased by 50 percent from 2007 to 2014.

Current California law prohibits “stoned driving,” but as of Jan. 1, 2018, a new law will go into effect that will make it illegal to drive or ride in a car while actively smoking marijuana. The regulation includes consuming marijuana edibles.

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