The Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety recently convened a working group to make a recommendation on a THC blood level limit for drivers who have consumed marijuana, Jillian Graham wrote for the Portland Press Herald. The committee acted in response to a bill submitted by Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap that would make it a crime in Maine to drive a car if you have a blood THC level of 5 nanograms or more per milliliter of blood. A group in Maine is collecting signatures to get a proposal onto the November 2016 ballot to legalize pot for recreational use in the state.
Recreational Marijuana in Colorado
It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, the Maine working group’s recommendation has on Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been legal since January 1, 2014. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s website has a Q and A page about Marijuana and Driving in Colorado.
Here is one of its Q & As:
- Q: Is there a legal limit for marijuana impairment while operating a vehicle?
- A: Colorado law specifies that drivers with five nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in their whole blood can be prosecuted for driving under the influence (DUI). However, no matter the level of THC, law enforcement officers base arrests on observed impairment.
Disagreement in Working Group
The Maine working group — comprised of 20 people, including police, prosecutors, medical marijuana industry representatives, and marijuana legalization advocates — was split on what blood level of THC should be written into the law as indicating impairment. Some members of the group said the scientific community itself is split on the issue, and that uncertainty could result in false convictions. David Boyer, a marijuana advocate and working group member, said:
[A] heavy medical marijuana user, for example, could carry a THC level of 5 nanograms per milliliter and show no signs of impairment.
Other recommendations include determining a THC blood level for when marijuana is combined with alcohol, prohibiting drivers under 21 from having any THC in their blood while driving, and allowing for suspending licenses for at least a year for young drivers who test positive for THC, unless they are medical marijuana patients.
Blood Alcohol Levels
Despite disagreeing on the THC levels that should be in the bill, the working group was unanimous in supporting the use of “approved, preliminary breath-alcohol testing devices” by police to know if a driver is drunk, and also suggested that Maine increase its number of specially trained drug recognition officers, Graham writes. Maine already has a law against operating a vehicle under the influence (OUI), which prohibits driving while impaired by marijuana. But unlike drunk driving laws, which set specific legal limits for a driver’s blood alcohol and breath levels, its OUI law specifies no breath or blood-level limits.
Washington, Montana, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada (in addition to Colorado) have laws specifiying numerical standards to establish when a driver is legally impaired by marijuana, Josh Benson and Clarissa Cooper wrote for Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. They quote Colorado Highway Safety Manager Glenn Davis as saying that the biggest challenge facing law enforcement on the topic of marijuana-impaired driving is data. Officials want to know how large the influence is of marijuana on driving, and exactly how many people have marijuana in their system when they’re arrested.
Michael Shepherd wrote for CentralMaine.com that in 2014, there were 3,600 convictions for operating under the influence of alcohol in Maine. But only 3,250 drivers were evaluated by the state’s drug recognition experts in the 10-year period from 2004 to 2014, according to data provided by Maine State Police Trooper Aaron Turcotte, a recognition expert. Of those, 1,400 were found to have marijuana in their systems.
In a related news item that might point to the future of marijuana-impaired driving and the number of car accidents, Alexandra Sifferlin wrote for Time magazine about a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health that found that more U.S. high school seniors smoke marijuana daily than smoke cigarettes. This is the first time that marijuana smoking has overtaken tobacco smoking in this age group since the study began in 1975.