marijuana drivingPinAmidst efforts to decrease the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities and injuries, a new topic is attracting increased attention. An emerging problem across the country is how to recognize and legislate driving under the influence of drugs, and marijuana is at the forefront of discussion because of the increasing number of states that are legalizing or decriminalizing it—not only for medical patients but for recreational use.

In 2012 alone, Minnesota reported 12,051 marijuana-related arrests, with 62 percent of them for possession alone. Whereas a first offense for possessing a small amount of marijuana is punishable by drug education and a $200 fine, for possession of two ounces or more, the penalties increase to as many as five years in jail. Compounding the problem is that these arrests are often disparately concentrated in minority communities. The ACLU reported that African-Americans in Minnesota are almost eight times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than Whites.

Minnesota’s Evolving Medical Marijuana Law

Minnesotans for Compassionate Care and the Minnesota Policy Project (MPP) have been working together to lobby for bringing a more compassionate medical marijuana law to the state. Whereas Governor Mark Dayton initially opposed such bills, he eventually signed the medical cannabis bill into law in May 2014. However, at that time, “intractable pain” was not one of the qualifying conditions. Intractable pain is “pain that can’t be otherwise treated or cured.” Now, as of August 2016, intractable pain has, in fact, been added to the list, thus enabling patients who suffer from this debilitating pain the option of medical marijuana. There has also been a push to add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients to the list.

Another problem involves the fact that as of now, only oils, vapor, and pills are legal—the plant is not. As a result, high prices and limited options burden those who desperately need marijuana to cope with certain medical conditions, including intractable pain.

With increasing use of medical marijuana, the problem of regulating driving while under the influence of marijuana becomes difficult.

The Colorado Experience

Recently, a stay-at-home mom from Denver was arrested for going through a roadside sobriety checkpoint. Despite being a medical marijuana patient, she claims to never drive while high. Thus, even though she hadn’t drank or smoked anything that night, officers detained her and a blood test revealed that she had five times the legal limit of THC—the mind-altering part of marijuana—in her system.

Colorado’s marijuana DUI law mirrors its alcohol DUI law—setting a threshold to determine whether someone is too intoxicated to drive safely. For marijuana, that threshold is five nanograms of THC per blood milliliter. Whereas many agree that some sort of nanogram threshold level is a good idea, there is considerable disagreement over an appropriate measure. When alcohol DUI laws were in their fledgling state, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was twice as high as it is now, and lowering it took several years. Thus, emerging marijuana laws may have to suffer through a similar trial-and-error period.

The defendant in this case was able to plead to a lesser offense after her attorney obtained a hung jury, this thrusting the issue of how to effectively determine when someone is “too high” to drive.

Colorado has experienced an increase in marijuana DUI arrests—and other states that are toying with legalizing recreational marijuana—are being left to their own devices in determining what, actually, is too intoxicated to drive. Granted, driving while stoned is dangerous—and this danger intensifies when mixed with alcohol.

Experts assert that measuring a person’s blood THC level is not an accurate indicator of intoxication because THC is stored in fat cells and is not water-soluble like alcohol is. Thus, THC metabolizes quite differently than does alcohol, and individuals may test positive even if they haven’t used marijuana for a week. Thus, simply adapting DUI laws for marijuana is not effective.

What Next?

Scientists at University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have been working on several apps to more accurately measure marijuana impairment while driving. They have been examining how time distortion and critical tracking functions slow when one is stoned, and how best to create a roadside option to check these impairments.

With many states considering legalizing recreational marijuana, greater attention is necessary to craft DUI legislation that removes those too impaired to drive without unfairly impacting those who are not.

According to The Street, Minnesota is among the eight states expected to legalize recreational marijuana in the near future.