(WXYZ) – In an effort to combat the dangers of drugged driving, five Michigan counties will participate in a one-year oral fluid roadside drug testing pilot program by Michigan State Police.
The counties include Berrien, Delta, Kent, St. Clair and Washtenaw counties.
The Preliminary Oral Fluid Analysis pilot program will establish policies for the administration of roadside drug testing to determine whether an individual is operating a vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance.
Over the last several years, Michigan has seen a steady increase in fatal crashes involving drivers impaired by drugs. In 2016, there were 236 drug-involved traffic fatalities.
“Motorists under the influence of drugs pose a risk to themselves and others on the road,” said MSP Director Col. Kriste Etue. “With drugged driving on the rise, law enforcement officers need an effective tool to assist in making these determinations during a traffic stop.”
The counties were chosen based on criteria including number of impaired driving crashed, impaired drivers arrested and trained Drug Recognition Experts in the county.
Under the pilot program, a DRE may require a person to submit to a preliminary oral fluid analysis to detect the presence of a controlled substance in the person’s body if they suspect the driver is impaired by drugs.
Refusal to submit to a preliminary oral fluid analysis upon lawful demand of a police officer is a civil infraction.
A large portion of patients taking prescription drugs that could affect driving may not be aware they could potentially be driving impaired, according to research in the November issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Nearly 20 percent of people in the study reported recent use of a prescription medication with the potential for impairment, but not all said they were aware that the medication could affect their driving, despite the potential for receiving warnings from their doctor, their pharmacist, or the medication label itself.
The percentages of those who said they had received a warning from one of those sources varied by type of medication: 86 percent for sedatives, 85 percent for narcotics, 58 percent for stimulants, and 63 percent for antidepressants.
In the report, researchers used data from the 2013-2014 National Roadside Survey, which asked drivers randomly selected at 60 sites across the United States questions about drug use, including prescription drugs. A total of 7,405 drivers completed the prescription drug portion of the survey.
Although it is unclear if the study participants actually received the warnings, or if they did receive the warnings but didn’t retain the information, the authors say this scenario is in need of further research.
“We were very surprised that our study was the first we could find on this topic,” says lead researcher Robin Pollini, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University. “It’s a pretty understudied area, and prescription drugs are a growing concern.”
In this study, the type of medication in question was also related to drivers’ perceptions about their impairment risk. They were most likely to think that sleep aids were the most likely to affect safe driving, followed by morphine/codeine, other amphetamines, and muscle relaxants. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications were viewed as least likely to affect driving risk. Sleep aids were also viewed as the most likely to cause an accident or result in criminal charges, and ADHD medications were viewed as the least likely.
Pollini says she hopes this research will lead to increased warnings provided by doctors and pharmacists, as well as improved labeling for medications that are likely to impair driving. She says it’s not yet clear what the optimum messaging would be. But she is encouraged by the fact that patients who are prescribed these medications have several points at which they could receive this important information.
“The vast majority of drivers who are recent users of prescription drugs that have the potential for impairment have come into contact with a physician, a pharmacist, and a medication label,” says Pollini. “There’s an opportunity here that’s not being leveraged: to provide people with accurate information about what risks are associated with those drugs. People can then make informed decisions about whether they’re able to drive.”
A related commentary by Benedikt Fischer, Ph.D., of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, and colleagues expresses concern that increased warnings and interventions may be insufficient to reduce the chances of driving while impaired. These authors point to the issue of alcohol-impaired driving to suggest that only deterrence-based measures–such as roadside testing, license suspensions, and increased insurance premiums–have the potential to change behavior.
To arrange an interview with Robin Pollini, Ph.D., M.P.H., please contact Kimberly Becker at 304.293.1699 or Kimberly.Becker@hsc.wvu.edu.
Pollini, R. A., Waehrer, G., & Kelley-Baker, T. (November 2017). Receipt of warnings regarding potentially impairing prescription medications and associated risk perceptions in a national sample of U.S. drivers. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 78(6), 805-813. doi:10.15288/jsad.2017.78.805
Fischer, B., Fidalgo, T., & Varatharajan, T. (November 2017). Reflections on Pollini et al. (2017)–Implications for interventions for driving while using psychotropic medications with impairment risk. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 78(6), 814-816. doi:10.15288/jsad.2017.78.814
Safety-related impacts of recreational marijuana legalizationBy Contributing Writer – October 27, 2017198 0Share on Facebook Tweet on Twitter In addition to the economic and health impacts of marijuana legalization (previous articles at uccseconomicforum.com/publications_media.shtml or at csbj.com), another important dimension to consider are the safety impacts. This would include traffic-related fatalities and other serious traffic incidents, seizures (or confiscation) of illegal or over-the-limit marijuana product, diversion of Colorado marijuana to other states where it is illegal, property and violent crime rates, and homelessness. Although not an exhaustive list of safety-related metrics, these are good indicators of how our broader community is being affected by the legalization of recreational marijuana. This article will cover traffic-related metrics and the final article will discuss other safety-related metrics.Much like the other dimensions related to tracking the effects of legalization, it is important to note that safety data is somewhat compromised by two factors. One, there is typically at least a one- to two-year lag in the availability of safety-related data, and recreational marijuana only became legal and available for retail sale in 2014. Two, given that recreational marijuana was previously illegal, our state did not have a robust methodology for systematically collecting information on marijuana-related crime nor methods for testing drivers for tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. Nonetheless, some meaningful information is beginning to emerge.To begin, measuring drivers for THC is challenging because its effects peak very soon after consumption, then begin to fall rather quickly, although lower levels of THC stay in the system for quite a while. By the time a crash has happened and a person gets tested, THC levels may be dramatically lower than when the crash occurred. Likewise, a low level of THC can remain in someone’s system many hours after consumption, complicating a true measure of impairment levels. Further clouding the issue is that marijuana-impaired drivers are often also drinking alcohol. Testing for driving under the influence of alcohol is easier and more mainstream, so many officers do not go beyond a positive DUI reading even if they suspect marijuana use. It is noteworthy that 36 percent of all drivers in Colorado involved in a fatal car crash who did test positive for THC had also consumed alcohol (CDOT). As discussed in an earlier article, the cross sensitization of alcohol and marijuana makes the effects of both together greater than the sum of each individually.The graph below shows the increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths in the past 10 years in Colorado (up 279 percent). In terms of the proportion of total traffic-related fatalities, in 2009, marijuana impairment was involved in 9 percent of fatalities; by 2016, 21 percent of fatalities involved marijuana impairment. This data may seriously under represent the attribution of marijuana impairment in traffic deaths, however, because only 44 percent of cadavers from traffic deaths have toxicology testing for marijuana. It is noteworthy that also in the last 10 years, population has increased 17 percent, and all traffic deaths increased 16 percent. If we examine DUIDs (driving under the influence of drugs), but not fatalities, the number of positive toxicology screens for marijuana rose 63 percent in the pre-legalization period (2009-2012) compared to the post-legalization period (2013-2016). Out of 1,004 DUIDs in 2016, 76 percent involved marijuana and another substance, and 38 percent involved marijuana only.A 2010 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Report estimated that the total economic costs for a vehicular fatality were $1.4 million including property damage, medical costs, insurance costs, lost productivity and other factors. The economic costs of the 125 traffic fatalities involving marijuana in Colorado in 2016 would have been approximately $175 million. The estimated cost of a DUID in the same 2010 NHTSA report was $10,270. If we conservatively use that dated amount and apply it to the number of known DUIDs in 2016, the cost in Colorado was approximately $7.9 million. If we juxtapose these two traffic-related costs to collected marijuana taxes, the costs outweigh the benefits by several million dollars (see table).These rough estimations do not consider the fatalities or other incidents that are marijuana related but not captured via toxicology testing. Nor does this one estimate encapsulate the other various costs associated with safety or health-related impacts. What this data does show us is the importance of comprehensively examining both the revenue and cost implications of legalization. Although we are now almost four full years into recreational legalization, and it is not likely that the legal status will change, we can use the information to
St. Charles Parish President Larry Cochran claims he was not impaired when he was pulled over by police while driving in Kenner last month and that he has prescriptions for the drugs found in his system afterward, his attorney said Thursday.
The lawyer, Wiley Beevers, said that Cochran likely appeared unsteady during a field sobriety test at the time of his arrest because of a childhood surgery in which he had a benign tumor removed from his right ear. The surgery has affected his balance to this day, said Beevers, who provided a doctor’s note explaining the surgery.
For weeks, Cochran has been under pressure from other parish officials to explain his arrest. He was pulled over the morning of Sept. 2, and while he had no detectable alcohol in his system he tested positive for a combination of prescription pain killers.
Beevers said Cochran is prepared to prove that he has valid prescriptions for both oxycodone and hydrocodone, drugs commonly sold as Oxycontin and Vicodin, although he did not provide the documentation Thursday.
A third drug found in Cochran’s system, oxymorphone, is a byproduct of the oxycodone and not a separate drug, Beevers said.
He said Cochran has undergone a half-dozen recent medical procedures — including multiple surgeries — for problems with his hands, shoulder, back and urinary tract.
Cochran, nonetheless, had not taken either medication for several days before he was pulled over, Beevers said.
“Larry doesn’t deny he was operating the vehicle, but he denies he was operating it in a reckless manner,” Beevers said. “He was not impaired. Anybody who has a script can take medication as prescribed.”
Kenner police have said Cochran was pulled over about 12:30 a.m. after a witness called to report a Chevy Tahoe with a public license plate was “swerving all over the roadway” and even driving into the neutral ground on Joe Yenni Boulevard in north Kenner.
An officer pulled the vehicle over on Cabernet Drive, near the home of Cochran’s secretary. Police said Cochran performed poorly on a field sobriety test and that he displayed bloodshot, glossy eyes and slow speech.
According to police, Cochran also made strange comments, asking if there was anything officers could do for him and saying, “I guess this means I should fill out my resignation papers.”
Cochran showed a blood-alcohol content of .00 on what is commonly referred to as the Breathalyzer test; the legal limit is .08 percent. But police said he bit off the mouthpiece on the testing machine when he first tried to take it.
Suspecting he was impaired by drugs, they drew his blood and booked him on counts of driving under the influence and reckless operation of a motor vehicle.
Cochran was released from jail shortly after his arrest because of overcrowding. Police publicly released the blood test results last week.
Beevers on Thursday hinted at other aspects of the defense he may present for Cochran if the case goes to trial.
He also said Cochran’s car was stopped on the side of the street when police initiated the traffic stop because the parish president was worried he was being followed.
“Police never saw him driving in a reckless manner,” Beevers said. “For a traffic stop, police must observe you breaking the law.”
At least one Parish Council member previously said he wanted Cochran to make a statement about the drugs found by the blood test.
“I don’t know if it was just a one-time incident,” Councilman Paul Hogan said. “I don’t know if it is a recurring situation with him.”
But fellow Councilman Terrell Wilson said Cochran deserves the benefit of the doubt. “People ask me if he’s showing up at work,” Wilson said. “He’s at work, doing his job.”
Cochran was elected parish president in November 2015, succeeding V.J. St. Pierre. He had previously served as the Parish Council chairman.
A preliminary hearing in his case is scheduled for Dec. 4 at 1st Jefferson Parish Court in Metairie. Prosecutors had not filed charges against him as of Thursday.
Driver who’s called a ‘clear danger’ gets maximum prison sentenceBy Melinda Miller | Published October 26, 2017 | Updated October 26, 2017SHARE TWEET His second arrest for driving while high cost Maxamillion Hernandez dearly on Thursday when he was sentenced to 1 3/4 to four years in prison on his conviction for vehicular assault.On May 10, 2016, Hernandez, 22, drove his speeding car through a red light in the Town of Tonawanda when he was in a chase with another vehicle. His car T-boned a taxicab on River Road, seriously injuring a passenger and also harming the driver.He also told investigators he had smoked pot earlier in the day.While Hernandez was free and awaiting resolution of the felony charges against him in that case, he was arrested on Aug. 16, 2016, while driving on Route 400 in West Seneca, and charged with driving while impaired.“So,” Erie County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio said to Hernandez on Thursday, “you have one case pending where people were seriously injured, and three months later you are arrested for the same thing again. “You drive when you are high a lot,” she said bluntly.Assistant District Attorney Christopher McCarthy said neither victim wanted to come to court to give a statement, but that they trusted the court to deliver a fair sentence. He also reminded the judge that one of the victims suffered a severe head injury and fractures to his leg and ribs, preventing him from working for some time.For the defense, attorney Sean Hill made a lengthy appeal for the judge to consider the “brief period of incarceration” recommended in a pre-sentencing report for Hernandez, possibly ordered him to spend weekends in jail so he could continue attending Erie Community College.He pointed out that video of the injury crash showed that Hernandez braked when he saw the other car, that he stayed at the scene and that he and his passenger tried to help the people in the taxicab.But Hernandez’s continued use of drugs, even after both arrests and counseling, was too much for the judge.“You’re just a clear danger and a threat to others on the road,” she said, before pronouncing the maximum sentence allowed for vehicular assault in the second degree, a Class E felony. A one-year sentence for his conviction for the second arrest will run concurrently.
VINELAND – For a third time within a month, a city man was revived by Narcan after he was found unconscious behind the wheel.
Richard Flores Jr., 28, of the 500 block of South Eighth Street, was arrested around 5:30 p.m. Friday after police received a call about a unconscious male driver behind the wheel of a vehicle at Myrtle Street and Michigan Avenue.
A witness told officers that the driver might be overdosing, noting there was a hypodermic needle stuck in Flores’ arm.
Flores regained consciousness after Vineland EMS administered Narcan. He was taken to Inspira Medical Center Vineland for further medical evaluation.
According to police reports, Flores was involved in motor vehicle crashes on Sept. 22 and Oct. 8 where he also overdosed at the scene and needles and heroin were found in his possession.
Narcan has been administered numerous times to Flores to revive him, however, “he is a repeat offender and is driving unlicensed and revoked,” police said.
Flores was charged with driving under the influence of narcotics and issued summonses for reckless driving, controlled dangerous substance in a motor vehicle, being an unlicensed driver, driving while on the revoked list, possession of drug paraphernalia, and other related drug offenses.
The case is pending in Cumberland County Superior Court and Vineland Municipal Court.
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed the impaired driving convictions of a woman who was found slumped over in her car on three occasions after allegedly inhaling from a can of dust remover.
The chemical in the can — 1,1-Difluoroethane, or DFE — was found in the woman’s system, and she was convicted of three counts of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of a hazardous substance. But the Supreme Court overturned her convictions because DFE is not listed as a hazardous substance under Minnesota’s driving-while-impaired statute.
“We acknowledge that based on our holding today, a driver dangerously intoxicated by DFE is not criminally liable under the plain language of the current DWI statutes,” Justice Natalie Hudson wrote for the majority. She said it’s up to the Legislature to refine the law.
DFE is found in refrigerated-based propellant cans, commonly sold under the brand name Dust-Off, that are used to clean computer keyboards and electronics. Each time the woman, Chantel Lynn Carson, was found in her car — slumped over, passed out, slurring and with bloodshot eyes — she had one or more of those cans with her.
In arguing that her convictions should be upheld, the state said that while Minnesota’s occupational safety and health rule on hazardous substances does not specifically list DFE, the rule also says it “does not include all hazardous substances and will not always be current.”
The rule also includes a list of “characteristics” that would make a substance hazardous. The state argued that DFE has many of those characteristics and falls into that category.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, saying the statute plainly says that the types of hazardous substances that can lead to a driving-while-impaired conviction are limited to those specifically listed.
Justice Anne McKeig dissented, saying DFE has the characteristics of a hazardous substance even though it’s not mentioned by name.
“Under the court’s interpretation of the statute, Minnesotans may inhale Dust-Off and then drive at their pleasure while endangering their fellow citizens,” she wrote. “This impunity cannot be what the Legislature intended.”
Carson’s attorney, Lydia Villalva Lijo, said in a statement that the decision was great news for her client.
“She continues to work hard every day to contribute in positive ways to her community and to keep her life on track,” she said. “It has been a hard road and we should encourage her progress.”
Pardon the pun, but the marijuana industry has been growing like a weed for years — and it has rapidly changing perceptions about the drug among the public to thank for it.
According to a CBS News poll conducted in July 1979, just 27% of those surveyed believed marijuana should be legal. Comparatively, 69% thought it shouldn’t be legal. Fast-forward to April 2017, and CBS News’ latest survey finds that an all-time record of 61% believe pot should be legal nationally, while just 33% now oppose the idea. This growing acceptance and favorability of marijuana has some pro-legalization enthusiasts and investors thinking that lawmakers on Capitol Hill may be coerced to change the drug’s scheduling sooner rather than later.
The result of this shift in opinion on pot has dramatically boosted sales of the drug in the United States. A Marijuana Business Daily report released this year estimates that legal-cannabis sales could grow by around 30% in 2018, and by an aggregate of 300% between 2016 and 2021 to approximately $17 billion. It’s this shifting opinion and rapid growth rate that have marijuana stock investors so excited about the industry’s prospects.
Marijuana’s huge speed bump in the road
But there’s one catch, and it’s a pretty big one: Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. As a Schedule I substance, it has no recognized medical benefits and is considered to be on par with heroin and LSD.
During the Obama administration, the Cole memo, named for President Obama’s deputy attorney general, James Cole, acted as a guide for how the federal government and legalizing states would coexist. According to the memo, states would be allowed to legalize and expand cannabis programs as long as they held to strict regulations, including ensuring that no minors got their hands on cannabis, and that states set strict regulations for driving under the influence. It also meant states had to take extra precautions to ensure that marijuana wasn’t trafficked interstate.
During the Obama presidency, federal regulators were generally hands-off when it came to the practices of individual states. Under the Trump administration, that may soon change.
In February, now-former White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that the Trump administration would take a more hands-on approach to regulating pot relative to the previous administration, though he failed to elaborate exactly what that might entail.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, leaves nothing to hide when it comes to his feelings about marijuana.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions strikes fear in the marijuana industry
For example, in May, Sessions sent a letter to congressional leaders asking them to repeal the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which protects marijuana businesses in legal states from federal prosecution. In other words, Sessions has been looking for the OK from his peers from the get-go to go after medical-marijuana businesses. This action would build on previous commentshe’s made suggesting crime follows drug use, and that cannabis is anything but medicine.
Sessions recently doubled down on his anti-marijuana view by candidly responding to a reporter’s question during a press conference in San Diego following a record-breaking narcotics seizure. According to Reuters, Sessions reminded everyone in the room that the federal law banning the sale of marijuana “remains in effect,” and that “I’ve never felt that we should legalize marijuana.” These 11 words are everything you need to know about the head of the Justice Department in regard to how he feels about weed.
The silver lining for pot businesses and marijuana stocks to this point has been the adherence to the Cole memo, as well as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which hasn’t allowed federal funding to be used to prosecute cannabis companies. But the tide may be shifting, which could give Sessions the ammo he needs to shut down legal-weed operations.
For instance, the House Rules Committee last month blocked a vote on the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, which would provide the exact same exemptions for pot businesses in legal states as in previous years. This is an amendment that has to be voted on and added to the budget each and every year. The blockage of this vote by the House may keep the amendment out of the 2018 budget, paving the way for Sessions to wreak havoc by using federal dollars to prosecute medical-cannabis businesses.
Marijuana isn’t a priority for Congress
Even if marijuana stocks and pro-legalization enthusiasts manage to catch a break by having the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment included thanks to its passage in the Senate, there’s still not a whole lot to cheer about. When push comes to shove, marijuana remains a very low priority for lawmakers in Washington, despite the shifting sentiment among the public.
Over the past couple of months, lawmakers have been devoting nearly their entire dockets to healthcare reform and tax reform. On top of these potentially major legislative changes, there’s the federal budget, the debt-ceiling debate, and Trump’s desire for an infrastructure bill. There’s next to no incentive, or time, for lawmakers in Washington to focus on legalizing cannabis.
Even if there were time, this Congress seems highly unlikely to pass any favorable weed laws. Aside from Jeff Sessions’ being dead set against seeing marijuana expand any further, Republicans remain in control of both houses of Congress. According to a Gallup October 2016 poll, Republicans are just one of two groups still opposed to the expansion of weed, along with senior citizens.
With the deck still stacked against marijuana stocks, and expected to remain that way for years to come, investors should do their best to temper their expectations.
Say Goodbye to the Old iPhone: This Could Be 40X Better iPhone mania is back, and there’s potentially billions up for grabs. But if you think Apple is the best way to play the pending iPhone tsunami, think again. One tiny company holds the patents to an invaluable, tiny component inside Apple’s newest iPhone — and Apple has to pay up every time it puts this technology in its phones.
Don’t wait until the name of this company is on everyone’s lips.
The state’s highest court on Tuesday limited which evidence can be used to prosecute drivers suspected of operating under the influence of marijuana, handing a victory to civil rights advocates in a closely watched case.
Under a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts police officers can no longer cite their subjective on-scene observations or sobriety tests to conclude in court testimony that a driver was under the influence of marijuana.
In limiting the use of the familiar roadside tests designed to provide an approximate measure of drunkenness — walking in a straight line, standing on one foot, and so on — the court found there is no scientific consensus those tests definitively prove someone is intoxicated by marijuana.
The judges also noted the effects of marijuana on its users are more complex than of alcohol and less obviously correlated to the amount consumed, making it difficult for untrained observers to know whether someone is high.
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“Because the effects of marijuana may vary greatly from one individual to another, and those effects are as yet not commonly known,” the court said, “neither a police officer nor a lay witness who has not been qualified as an expert may offer an opinion as to whether a driver was under the influence of marijuana.”
Police officers can still arrest drivers they suspect are high and describe in court how the drivers behaved during the roadside tests. For example, an officer could tell a jury a driver was unable to walk in a straight line. But under the ruling, the officer could not describe the task as a “test” or say the driver “failed” it.
Similarly, an officer could tell a jury that a driver smelled strongly of marijuana and seemed confused but could not use such observations to conclude the driver was high
However, the court said jurors “are still permitted to utilize their common sense” in considering whether the sobriety assessments and other evidence indicate impairment.
The defendant in the case is Thomas Gerhardt, who was stopped in Millbury in February 2013 by a State Police trooper for allegedly driving with his lights off, according to a statement of facts agreed to by both sides in the case.
The trooper testified that he saw smoke inside the vehicle and smelled marijuana and that Gerhardt acknowledged smoking about a gram of marijuana. Gerhardt was unable to properly do the “walk-and-turn” test, the trooper said, and struggled to stand on one foot.
The case has not yet gone to trial, amid legal wrangling over which evidence can be admitted.
Rebecca Jacobstein, Gerhardt’s attorney, called the ruling a victory over “junk science.”
“The big take-away here is that for the government to introduce something as science, it actually has to be science,” Jacobstein said.
The decision, she argued, does not make it harder for law enforcement to deter stoned driving.
“I look at this more as a protection of people’s right to have only meaningful and relevant evidence used against them,” she said.
A spokesman for Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., whose office is prosecuting Gerhardt, said the decision “provides much-needed clarity regarding police testimony,” and prosecutors will use the court’s guidance in bringing the case to trial.
Walpole police Chief John Carmichael Jr., a spokesman for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, doesn’t expect the ruling to significantly change how officers conduct traffic stops.
“At the end of the day, officers are still going to rely on all their observations and the total circumstances of the stop, and base their arrests on probable cause,” Carmichael said. “We don’t think about conviction rates all the time; we think about public safety.”
Beyond standard sobriety tests, Carmichael said, officers carefully watch how a driver acts in general. He added he was relieved those observations will be still heard in court.
Carmichael called on the state Legislature to follow Colorado and Washington, two other states where recreational marijuana is legal, in establishing a blood concentration limit for THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
“Our law doesn’t have the teeth it needs,” he said.
Both states use a threshold of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood; in Washington any driver at or above that level is automatically considered impaired, while in Colorado those drivers can dispute their condition in court. However, some experts have questioned the validity of any law that specifies a particular blood concentration for impairment.
Jay Winsten, director of Harvard University’s Center for Health Communication and a pioneer of OUI awareness campaigns, praised the court for taking a “middle ground” approach.
“I think it was a wise, smart, and careful decision,” Winsten said. “It keeps field sobriety tests in the picture without allowing police officers to claim they constitute unequivocal evidence of marijuana intoxication, which would be suggesting something that goes beyond what’s currently known.”
“In the end,” he added, “it’s up to the common sense of jurors.”
In Colorado, it’s legal to smell like marijuana while driving and to have paraphernalia in the car. It’s even legal to have marijuana in the car as long as the weed’s in a sealed container away from the driver.
But it’s illegal to drive impaired from cannabis, just like it’s illegal to drive drunk. And the number of deaths due to car crashes involving marijuana is rising, says Sam Cole, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“It’s still small compared to all the other reasons we’re seeing for fatalities out there,” he says. In 2016, 51 people died in crashes that involved drivers whose blood tested contained a certain level of active THC. That’s 8 percent of all crash fatalities in 2016. “The data indicates it’s a growing problem.” And CDOT has allocated almost a million dollars, all from marijuana tax revenue, to educate the public about the danger of driving while high.
And yet, confirming that someone has actually been driving while impaired by marijuana is remarkably tricky. But that doesn’t stop Colorado lawyer Chris Halsor from teaching law enforcement officers to recognize the signs of marijuana impairment.
“It’s a brave new world,” he says to a room full of Colorado State Patrol officers. There are now more dispensaries in the state than there are Starbucks coffee shops, he tells the students as they learn how to correctly perform roadside sobriety tests.
To complicate matters, as CDOT’s Sam Cole notes, “the only roadside device that’s allowed to be used, by statute, is an alcohol device.” It’s largely up to officers to determine on the side of the road if a person is impaired from pot.
As part of the training, Halsor assigned the officers to go shopping at local dispensaries, so they could get a sense of what pot products are out there. Then, a group of volunteers arrived, introduced themselves to the officers, and promptly proceeded to an RV parked in the hotel parking lot where, as payment for their participation, they could legally consume as much pot as they wanted from a plastic tub of edibles, vape pens, joints and other pot products.
When the volunteers returned to the hotel, the officers tested them on a number of measures meant to distinguish the impaired from the sober.
How many quarters are in $1.75? A person who’s impaired might take a while to figure it out.
Walk nine paces, touching toe to heel, along a line, then return. Someone who’s impaired might forget the instructions or have trouble balancing.
Follow a pen with your eyes as an officer moves it around your face. An impaired person’s eyes often show something called “horizontal gaze nystagmus,” in which the eyes jerk when they move to the side. When the pen moves toward the nose, an impaired person’s eyes often show “lack of convergence” — their eyes can’t cross in sync, drifting or shifting around rather than converging on the tip of the nose.
The usefulness of many of these tests are backed up by scientific evidence, but the methods don’t always apply to everyone equally. And they are all subject to — even dependent upon — an officer’s observations, biases, and interpretation.
Indeed, one of the volunteer’s results were clear-cut. “She’d be going to jail,” said Rich Armstrong, an officer with Colorado State Patrol, and the others all agreed. But the other three were not.
Officers disagreed about the second woman, who did well on some parts of the tests and poorly on others. “It was a tough one,” said Trooper Tom Davis, also with CSP.
“Yeah, this is one of those subjective areas,” said Rich Armstrong.
The officers determined that, in real life, they would not have arrested the two male volunteers for impairment, even though the male volunteers had consumed a comparable amount of cannabis to the female volunteers.
Enter the scientists. At the Boulder branch of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, nestled among buildings that house atomic clocks and giant lasers, there is a group of researchers dedicated to forensic science. And right now, a few them are all about pot. Measuring it precisely, of course.
Chemical engineer Tara Lovestead is working hard to lay the groundwork for a pot breathalyzer. As federal employees, she and her colleagues can’t actually develop commercial breath tests, but they’re doing the nitty gritty basic research like measuring the fundamental physical properties of THC. The findings could help companies and researchers create reliable devices that correlate chemicals in a person’s breath to their level of impairment.
From Lovestead’s point of view, the current system for determining marijuana impairment relies too much on an officer’s interpretation. “It’s too subjective. I’m not comfortable with that. The public, I don’t think, is comfortable with that,” she says.
At least two companies are working on devices, including Cannabix Technologies and Hound Labs, but they’re still in the testing phase. And though officers in California are already using a marijuana detection device called the Drager DrugTest 5000, it does not detect a person’s level of impairment — only the presence of THC in their saliva.
Often, when officers deem an erratic or dangerous driver to be impaired from marijuana, they bring the driver in for a blood test. According to state law, if a milliliter of the person’s blood contains more than 5 nanograms of active THC, the person can be “presumed” to be impaired. But researchers have shown that the 5-nanogram limit can be misleading, possibly incriminating someone who last smoked days before driving, and possibly missing someone who just consumed cannabis.
“It’s a very challenging problem and a lot of work needs to be done,” says Lovestead, whose research group previously worked on technology that could sample tiny amounts of chemicals in the air to detect things like explosives or buried bodies.
While scientists and companies chip away at developing marijuana breath tests, Sam Cole at CDOT is exploring another big question: what’s behind Colorado’s rise in crash fatalities involving marijuana.
“The 64 million dollar question is: Is it because of legalization?” he says. Data on crash fatalities and marijuana is spotty before 2013. So the answer, Cole says, is unclear.