Marijuana has reentered the spotlight since its legalization in several states. Once associated with college students and attacks of the munchies it is now being debated by policymakers whether to legalize it for medicinal and recreational use. As legalization is approved, the methods of defining drugged driving are being debated. Medical marijuana is currently legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia and recreational use is permitted in Colorado and Washington, with pending votes in other states.
As more people drive under the influence of marijuana there is much discussion regarding the lack of research required to set a legal limit for driving comparable to the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level currently set at 0.08. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. during a congressional hearing on July 31 said, “I just think it is amazing with some of the hyperventilated rhetoric about marijuana use and THC that we still don’t have enough data to understand how dangerous it is in operating a vehicle.” (THC is tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects.) Jeff Michael, a staffer with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states, “Studies show that THC, the psychoactive substance found in cannabis impairs drivers. But there is still not enough scientific evidence to know the exact extent of that impact.”
Current research has not determined a specific limit, over which there is measurable impairment. Michael told congressional lawmakers, “Researchers don’t know the number of fatalities each year that result from THC. Studies are restricted by limiting testing procedures and the fact that individuals react much more variably to marijuana than they do to alcohol, making testing more difficult.”
Following legalization of marijuana in Washington State in 2012, drivers testing positive for THC rose by 33 percent according to Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
Marilyn Hustis, a senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse says, “THC roughly doubles the odds of a motor vehicle accident or fatality. The substance is not as impairing as alcohol but can cause divided attention, making it more difficult for a driver to focus on traffic, judge distance from the car ahead and stay in the correct lane without weaving. The drug also impairs risk-related decisions, such as when to pass another vehicle and affects executive decision making, meaning it jades a person’s ability to use past experiences to decide how to act.” THC testing procedures are limited in the US which limits new research and policies. At the federal level there is no standard test or limit on the substance, since any level of THC in the blood is considered illegal.
Another hurdle is that THC can remain in the system for up to 30 days after smoking if the person is a daily, chronic user. Carboxy-THC, a non-psychoactive form of THC can remain in fat tissue for at least 30 days but does not impact driving ability. Regardless, many states that have not legalized marijuana arrest people if they have carboxy-THC in their system.
Colorado and Washington, where marijuana is legal, each use a 5-nanogram limit on the amount of THC in one milliliter of a driver’s blood. A Swedish study recently showed that 90 percent of impaired drivers would not be apprehended with a 5-nanogram limit.
Lawmakers have pressed for oral fluid tests which would allow apprehending officers to perform roadside screenings while a second sample would be sent to a lab to test for THC levels. The results would reveal THC levels at the time of the incident as opposed to often hours later. Researchers are running a pilot test of oral fluids in California.
Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board states, “Hopefully we will not wait for more people to die from drug-induced transportation accidents before we take strong and decisive actions.”
While certain drugs may become legal, that doesn’t mean that they won’t stop being habit forming. Know that Sovereign Health Group will always be here to help out anyone who is looking for assistance on their road toward recovery. For more information, call 866-524-5504.
Written by Sovereign Health Group writer Veronica McNamara