Amid all the talk about what kind of marijuana businesses can go where and when, the most important aspect of policy regarding recreational marijuana is drawing little attention.
How are the police going to deal with drivers under the influence of marijuana?
Make no mistake about it: drivers under the influence of marijuana pose a danger to themselves and everyone on the road.
A driver under the influence of marijuana is probably less likely to drive aggressively or recklessly than one under the influence of alcohol, but the drug impacts attentiveness, judgment, and reaction time, among other things.
The Legislature and local towns are fixated on issues like how much to tax marijuana and whether marijuana businesses can open in one neighborhood or another.
(We see little reason to treat a marijuana “social club” differently than a bar or a marijuana shop differently than a liquor store, but these decisions are appropriately left to each town.)
Issues like taxes and zoning will seem trivial the first time a driver under the influence of marijuana wanders over the centerline of Route 1 and causes a fatal accident.
Think we’re being alarmist?
“Fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana doubled in Washington after the state legalized the drug,” according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
But the police do not have a foolproof way to determine whether a driver is under the influence of marijuana.
The old way is to conduct a field sobriety test or enlist the services of a “drug recognition expert,” a law enforcement officer with special training to recognize the signs of impairment. To our knowledge, we have one of these officers in the entire county.
There is no blood or breath limit for marijuana under Maine law. Last year, legislators rejected a blood-level limit because the jury is still out on the science.
The same AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety press release containing the research about fatal accidents in Washington state calls legal limits for marijuana “meaningless.”
“There is understandably a strong desire by both lawmakers and the public to create legal limits for marijuana impairment, in the same manner as we do with alcohol,” AAA President and CEO Marshall Doney said. “In the case of marijuana, this approach is flawed and not supported by scientific research. It’s simply not possible today to determine whether a driver is impaired based solely on the amount of the drug in their body.”
How to enforce the OUI law is the single most important policy question with regard to recreational marijuana.
Education to prevent use by teenagers and young adults will continue to be important, but we are not sure the new law will make the drug more available to youth.
Rob Davidson, of Bristol, hits the nail on the head with his blunt approach to the matter in our front-page article about a public hearing in Bristol.
People have been using marijuana since probably around the beginning of time, and buying, selling, or bartering it since shortly thereafter.
For some teenagers and young adults, it’s easier to buy marijuana from a co-worker or friend than to enlist an adult to buy alcohol for them.
Education for teenagers and young adults remains crucial, but legalization changes little about these efforts. There is no gray area about the still-illegal use of marijuana by minors.
Legalization changes everything with regard to OUI because it is a gray area. It’s illegal to drive under the influence, but who is under the influence? Is it simply an officer’s judgment call?
Our legislators, police officers, and scientists need to solve this issue before someone gets hurt.