Laws Hazy Regarding Driving While Stoned
As the legal use of marijuana rises across the U.S., many states have failed to write laws that prohibit driving while high, and, some authorities argue the number of pot-related auto accidents is growing as a result. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that, based on random roadside checks, 16.3% of nighttime drivers across the U.S. are impaired by legal and illegal drugs, with half of those being marijuana. Over the 10 years ending in 2009, there has been a 55% increase in fatal crashes where drugs were the primary cause and alcohol was not involved.
As Ralph Vartabedian writes in the LA Times:
‘Marijuana is a significant and important contributing factor in a growing number of fatal accidents,’ said Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy in the White House and former Seattle police chief. ‘There is no question, not only from the data but from what I have heard in my career as a law enforcement officer.’
With one-third of states now allowing the sale of medical marijuana, federal officials are looking into scientific studies to determine exactly how marijuana can impair drivers, a question that experts have so far not been able to answer.
According to the LA Times,
The issue is compounded by the lack of a national standard on the amount of the drug that drivers should be allowed to have in their blood. While 13 states have adopted zero-tolerance laws, 35 states including California have no formal standard, and instead rely on the judgment of police to determine impairment.
Even the most cautious approach of zero tolerance is fraught with complex medical issues about whether residual low levels of marijuana can impair a driver days after the drug is smoked. Marijuana advocates say some state and federal officials are trying to make it impossible for individuals to use marijuana and drive legally for days or weeks afterward.
It will take years of research for science to develop a test by which police can swab saliva from a driver’s mouth and determine if that driver’s system has an illegal level of marijuana. Until then, police have to base arrests on their professional judgment of a driver’s behavior and vital signs. Officers administer a 12-point examination, in which they check a driver’s pupils, blood pressure and pulse, and have the driver walk a straight line and stand on one leg. The test also includes having the driver estimate the passage of 30 seconds. Many law enforcement professionals say such testing is adequate.