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Portland NORML Responds to 2014 Marijuana DUID Reports from Colorado, Urges Careful Consideration by Legislature

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Hysteria over Marijuana-Impaired Drivers Fails to Note How Few Drivers Are Actually Impaired and How Safe Colorado’s Roads Have Become

(Image: 123rf.com / Scott Betts)

(Image: 123rf.com / Scott Betts)

DENVER – The Colorado State Patrol has issued its report on driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) data for the first year of legal adult marijuana sales in the Centennial State.  According to the report, there were 5,546 citations for DUID, of which 674 involved suspected marijuana use.  Of the marijuana DUID cases, 354 were cases where marijuana use alone was suspected.

Portland NORML shares legislators concerns on the issue of marijuana-impaired driving.  No person should operate heavy machinery while impaired, whether that impairment arises from drugs, alcohol, fatigue, illness, or distraction.  However, Portland NORML urges legislators to carefully consider the facts regarding marijuana and impairment before rushing to implement unjust and unscientific DUID standards such as those found in Colorado and Washington.

“When the Denver Post tells you twelve percent of DUI cases involve marijuana,” explained Portland NORML Executive Director Russ Belville, “it’s a case of citing a fact while distorting the truth.  What they’re not telling you is that ‘involve marijuana’ means discovering a pot smoker who drives, not discovering one who was impaired at the time.”

“We support the idea of ‘treat marijuana like alcohol,” Belville continued, “but it is important to remember that marijuana ain’t alcohol, especially when it comes to determining impairment.  We urge legislators to resist the temptation to establish a politically convenient DUID standard that unfairly penalizes adults who use marijuana but are in no way impaired behind the wheel.”

In a letter to the Legislature, Portland NORML laid out the facts about this latest report and the science behind marijuana impairment, noting:

  • Of 5,546 DUIDs in Colorado for 2014, roughly 14 in 16 citations were for alcohol;
  • Another 1 in 16 citations involved alcohol and marijuana;
  • Thus, only 1 in 16 citations for DUID was related to marijuana alone;
  • The 1 in 8 citations involving marijuana and marijuana plus alcohol matches the 1 in 8 Coloradoans over age 18 who use marijuana on a monthly basis (2012-2013 National Survey on Drug Use & Health);
  • Since marijuana use can be detected long after impairing effects wane, all we can say for sure about those 1 in 16 drivers cited for marijuana alone is that they are marijuana consumers, not that they were impaired;
  • Colorado’s State Patrol issued 75 percent of the 5,546 DUID citations through “pro-active” operations, such as DUID checkpoints that are unconstitutional in Oregon;
  • That means 3 in 4 DUID citations were issued by officers suspecting a driver had used alcohol or marijuana in a face-to-face encounter, not by officers observing reckless or impaired behavior on the road;
  • So, for the 354 drivers cited for marijuana DUID, a large majority of them were caught by police who had smelled or seen marijuana in the car or on the driver, not by police who had seen them driving erratically;
  • Colorado State Patrol neither released any figures for how much THC was detected in marijuana-suspected drivers’ blood nor how many citations led to convictions, further obscuring how many of the 354 drivers could have actually been impaired behind the wheel;
  • Colorado’s presumptive DUID limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood is so low that frequent marijuana consumers, like medical marijuana patients, can exceed it long after impairment fades, even after a full night’s sleep (http://rad-r.us/SoberDUID);
  • Seattle TV station KIRO demonstrated how medical marijuana patients and even infrequent adult marijuana consumers show no driving impairment even at multiples higher than Washington’s 5 nanogram THC limit (http://rad-r.us/KIROtest);
  • Traffic fatalities in Colorado (http://rad-r.us/FARSCO), Washington (http://rad-r.us/FARSWA), Oregon (http://rad-r.us/FARSOR), and California (http://rad-r.us/FARSCA) have experienced steep declines (see attached Figure 1) despite widespread availability of marijuana and some of the nation’s greatest monthly marijuana use rates;
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warns that “It is inadvisable to try and predict effects based on blood THC concentrations alone…” (NHTSA, “Drugs and Human Performance Fact Sheets”, Revised April 2014, http://rad-r.us/NHTSADUID);
  • Columbia University neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart explains that “you cannot predict a person’s level of impairment based on THC levels found in their system.” (“Testing Positive For Marijuana Does Not Correspond With Impairment”, Dr. Carl Hart, http://rad-r.us/HartDUID).

“Marijuana impaired driving is a serious concern,” concluded Belville, “but it has yet to be shown to be a serious problem.  Oregon has had tens of thousands of medical marijuana patients and storefront dispensaries for years now.  If there was going to be an indication that marijuana’s availability would impact traffic safety, we would have seen it by now.  It is not as if Measure 91 invented marijuana and cars; Oregon law enforcement is already effectively dealing with marijuana impaired driving, which is already against the law.  As we move forward, let’s implement Measure 91 as written, including its call for legislative study of the science behind marijuana-impaired driving before implementing any new standards.”

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Russ Belville

Executive Director: Russ Belville has been active in Oregon marijuana reform since 2005, when he was elected second-in-command of the state affiliate, Oregon NORML. After four years with Oregon NORML, Russ was hired by National NORML in 2009, working as Outreach Coordinator and hosting the NORML Daily Audio Stash podcast until 2012. Since then, Russ launched the 420RADIO marijuana legalization network and is the host of The Russ Belville Show, a live daily marijuana news talk radio program. Russ is also a prolific writer, with over 300 articles posted online and in print in HIGH TIMES, Huffington Post, Alternet, The Weed Blog, Marijuana Politics, and more.

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