Colorado continues to blaze a trail for other states when it comes to legalized marijuana. Let’s face it: we’ve had our ups and downs since the vote in November 2012 when our state passed Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana. From “cannabis tourism” to neighborhood spats to a huge spike in child overdoses, we are figuring out a lot of things as we go… for better or worse … especially when it comes to marijuana laws, as well as how we do marijuana DUI testing.
For this blog, which focuses on Denver personal injury topics, I want to write about DUI arrests and marijuana, and the associated marijuana DUI testing. I’ve seen quite a lot of misinformation on the internet about what it means to be impaired by marijuana or driving under the influence of marijuana. Like alcohol, I believe that there should be a very low threshold for people driving under the influence because the repercussions can be so tragic. However, marijuana is a tricky thing to measure since it stays in your system so much longer than alcohol.
This is a tricky and complicated issue. Regular users of marijuana will have higher THC levels in their blood even when they aren’t high.
A recent Colorado Public Radio story addressed the complexities:
“Colorado’s marijuana DUI law is modeled on the one for alcohol, which sets a number to determine when someone is too intoxicated to drive. For pot, that number is five nanograms per milliliter of blood. Anything above that and the law says you shouldn’t be driving.”
That’s a problem according to Tom Marcotte who runs The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego.
“Unlike alcohol, which has a generally linear relationship between the amount of alcohol you consume, your breath alcohol content and driving performance, the THC route of metabolism is very different.”
That means blood and breath tests are not a good measure of marijuana intoxication. AAA released a study this spring backing that up, even saying states should wait to set marijuana impairment limits until the science improves.”
So, the recommendation is that we should wait to set marijuana DUI limits when it comes to testing. But what about the victims who are injured by drivers under the influence of marijuana? Yes, I understand that pot stays in your system longer and it can be hard to measure, but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people get behind the wheel when they are legitimately impaired by marijuana. And they hurt people.
Are Marijuana DUI Arrests Accurate?
So, you see, this is a tricky and complicated issue. Regular users of marijuana will have higher THC levels in their blood even when they aren’t high. Now, before you go thinking, “Why would we want a regular pot user on our streets anyway? Hippies. Addicts. Derelicts,” and all the other things that stereotypically come to mind, remember this: medicinal marijuana is legitimately helping people deal with pain, anxiety, nausea and a whole host of other ailments. It provides incredible relief for the people who need it. So, should those people be terrified of getting behind the wheel simply because they took pot for their ailments?
Science has proven that regular users maintain high levels of THC, but it does not necessarily mean they are unimpaired. Clearly, the ways we do a marijuana DUI test need to develop and mature. We need to accept that there isn’t going to be an easy, chemically based roadside test for pot, the way there is currently for alcohol (breathalyzer). If one is in development, it could be a while before it hits the mainstream. In the meantime, we need to protect our roads from truly impaired drivers. How do we do that?
We simply don’t have a test like the breathalyzer to test for marijuana impairment.
Roadside Marijuana DUI Tests for Impairment
Luckily, our police officers are trained to recognize impairment. That could mean impairment from alcohol, impairment from marijuana, or impairment from any number of other drugs that people put into their bodies. If you are impaired, cops truly don’t care how you did it. They want to get you off the streets.
The question is, do police officers know the signs of marijuana impairment? It turns out that the signs are very similar to alcohol impairment. A recent study published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention found that 96.7% of drivers who tested positive for recent cannabis consumption (and negative for alcohol or other drugs) failed at least two of these tests:
- A one-legged stand in which the driver counts down while holding one foot in the air
- Standing with eyes closed and estimating the passage of 30 seconds
- Touching the tip of the nose six times, three times with the index finger of each hand
- Taking a series of heel-to-toe steps in a prescribed way
Sound familiar? The fact that the roadside marijuana DUI test is similar to the roadside test for alcohol impairment shouldn’t be surprising, because, as I said above, impairment is impairment. The tricky part with pot is the gray area where cops might think a person might be impaired, but it’s right on the line of legality – we simply don’t have a test like the breathalyzer to test for marijuana impairment.
My recommendation for pot users: if you’re going to get high for fun, stay off the roads. Period. If you’re using pot for medicinal purposes, keep your medical marijuana card with you at all times and don’t leave pot paraphernalia lying around in your car. We are all part of Colorado’s grand marijuana experiment, but people should not die on the roads because you are a user.
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