Thirty-five drivers who died in fatal car accidents in Colorado’s Front Range had illegal levels of marijuana in their systems in 2017, down from 52 in 2016.

Colorado Lacks Reliable Data Necessary to Measure Abuse Trend

How do you track a problem like drug-impaired driving in Colorado when recreational marijuana is legal and, unlike with alcohol, you don’t have a reliable, convenient, affordable way to test for abuse, and cities, counties, and towns all have their own testing policies? The short answer is: You can’t.

Federal transportation safety officials have been urging fellow federal and state regulators to do more to pin down the pot abuse trends by devising consistent standards for testing and reporting the cases, Bloomberg News‘ Ryan Beene and Alan Levin reported.

The National Transportation Safety Board directed its subordinate agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to create standards for portable testing devices that measure a driver’s intoxication levels at roadside and to give states more guidance on fighting drug-impaired driving.

Heidi King, NHTSA’s deputy administrator said that while the country lacks a uniform data pool to show the true scope of the drugged driving problem, all the available evidence shows that it’s mounting. Roadside testing monitored by the agency in recent years shows an increase in the number of drivers with substances such as marijuana in their systems and an increase of drugs mixed with alcohol.

“There’s not one uniform completely robust collection of information yet, but all of the information supports the need for action,” King said.

Changing Detection Methods

It’s unclear how many years it will be before there is an inexpensive, portable, and accurate marijuana-impairment test, but testing methods and technology have already changed quite a bit. In recent years, the test has gone from analyzing cups of urine to vials of blood and to swabs of spit. The tests have also shifted from one type of cannabis trace chemical that remained in a user’s body for days to one that diminishes in a few hours and therefore better indicates impairment. The evolving science and the lack of consensus on what constitutes clinical THC-related impairment make tracking the problem, nationally, from state to state, or from one jurisdiction to another, nearly impossible.

Profiling a Shifting Problem of Drivers in Fatal Colorado Car Accidents

Denver Post reporters investigated Colorado’s drug-impaired driving problem in 2017 by collecting records from federal and state safety agencies and the coroners across the Front Range counties. Their analysis showed that the number of drivers in fatal Colorado car accidents who tested positive for marijuana rose sharply every year since 2013 and more than doubled in that time frame.

Among drivers who died in Front Range crashes, coroners found increasingly high levels of marijuana, The Post’s David Migoya wrote. Nearly a dozen drivers in 2016 had levels five times the legal level, and one driver had 22 times the limit.

But those drivers were dead. Although it’s commonplace for coroners to test the blood of deceased drivers, the decision to test a living driver is done on a case-by-case basis, at the police officer’s discretion or by a county’s procedures. In some cases, police will have enough readily attainable evidence to arrest and convict a driver for drunk driving and not feel the need to test for marijuana traces.

The newspaper investigation found that the upward trend, through 2016, had coincided with Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012 and sales in 2014. However, interviewed public safety officials could not definitively link increasing pot fatalities to pot’s legalization.

The officials did well to reserve that judgment because a year later, the trend had reversed. The number of drivers in fatal wrecks testing above the limit for marijuana’s active chemical decreased from 52 in 2016 to 35 in 2017, The Post’s Sam Tabachnik reported. Citations for pot-only impairment were steady from 2014 to 2017 at about 7 percent of all arrests for DUI.

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