A Different Kind of DUI - What Legalizing Marijuana Could Mean for Road Safety

Colorado and Washington are the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. While marijuana is legal medicinally in the state of Arizona, more and more people are supporting full legalization. Take legalizing marijuana to its logical ends, and will we have a population of people driving while stoned? Many in health and safety industries share this concern.

Frankly, at this time, law enforcement has no way to address this concern. Currently, it is against the law in Arizona to both drink and drive and drive under the influence of a drug, but the law would have to be adapted if recreational marijuana is legalized in our state.

To understand what Arizona might do if marijuana is fully legalized, we need to look to Los Angeles. LA County is at the forefront of drugged driving tests, and one of their recent studies found that seven percent of night drivers had marijuana in their systems. Los Angeles is testing for drugged drivers using oral swabs, but many have concerns that this violates an individual's Fourth Amendment rights.

An increasing number of pot smokers believe that marijuana does not impair them as alcohol does.

As one marijuana user said, "I've drunk wine and driven, and I feel that has a greater impact on accidents versus marijuana. I think you're more cautious and more aware of things [when driving after smoking pot versus driving after drinking]."

There are also those who are of the belief that smoking marijuana can actually make them more focused and safer drivers than if they had not smoked at all.

Research in this area is lacking, especially in comparison to the research we have on alcohol and driving. Drinking and driving results in about 10,000 traffic deaths every year – evidence tells us that, at a certain concentration of alcohol, a person is no longer able to drive safely. This concentration is .08 percent. Currently, we have no such threshold when it comes to smoking pot and driving.

The bulk of the research we do have comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Data suggests that, after using marijuana, an individual has more difficulty performing basic driving functions like staying inside of lanes. But does this impaired concentration correlate with an increase in collisions?

As of now, the evidence is not conclusive. No one can say for sure how much marijuana is too much marijuana when it comes to traffic safety. In order for new or amended drugged driving laws to be drafted, proposed, and passed, there has to be evidence. The country is still waiting on that.

If you were to be arrested today under suspicion of drunk or drugged driving, law enforcement would ask you to submit to a chemical test – breath or blood test, but most likely a blood test if they suspect you of drugged driving. If the test results indicate that there is any trace of marijuana, you would be charged with drugged driving in violation of § 28-1381 ARS.

What's the problem here? Marijuana, or more specifically THC (the active ingredient), can remain in a person's system for much longer than a person is high. What this means is that a person could be arrested and charged with drugged driving for marijuana they smoked the day before, or even longer.

In states that have legalized recreational marijuana, lawmakers have implemented a legal pot limit - much like the .08 BAC limit to determine drunk driving. That limit is 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter.

One problem with this is that law enforcement could sacrifice their own judgment in exchange for a number, because it is easier. When it comes to "impairment" there seems to be a lot of gray area, which necessitates law enforcement using their judgment to determine if a person is impaired or not.

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