The American Automobile Association's name cropped up in several articles this month on the topic of driving while under the influence of marijuana. On the basis of headlines alone, the organization, which often weighs in on issues effecting motorists, appears to have added its influence to a conflicting array of opinions.
Tests that examine marijuana impairment are flawed, the AAA declared on May 10. However, on the same day, the organization announced that cannabis-involved traffic fatalities in Washington have almost doubled since the state legalized the drug. So, what's the takeaway for reductionist fear-mongers and/or bong-clutching commuters?
Well, science is hard, and creating sexy news from science is even harder. In fact, these two newsbytes came from the same series of studies (hence why they were reported on the same day). And the findings are not mutually exclusive. First, the Washington fatality rates: Between 2012 and 2014, the number of drivers killed with marijuana in their systems jumped from 8 to 17 percent. Colorado saw a similar rise, according to some statistics, from 10 to 19 percent. However, correlation is not always causation. The Washington study has a couple of big caveats: It doesn't say whether the drivers involved in the crashes were at fault, or whether those drivers, who had THC in their systems, were actually impaired by the THC at the time of the crashes. And, concludes the study, it's hard to measure what impairment really means when it comes to pot.
The current limit in most states with marijuana DUI laws on the books is 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood, as measured by a post-traffic stop blood test. But what that looks like on the road can vary from person to person; a dedicated stoner with a high tolerance may not be fazed by this amount, while a wobbly-kneed newbie might be lost behind the wheel. Also, the amount of THC in the blood can drop quite a bit between being pulled over and getting tested. Testing for alcohol in the blood is generally a more straightforward process, but AAA calls current tests for marijuana impairment "unscientific."
And unfair, alleges Manny Daskal, a local attorney specializing in defending DUI cases. Daskal says he's left messages with Assemblyman Jim Wood several times to register his disdain for Assembly Bill 2740, which would institute a 5-nanogram limit for California drivers. The bill — which recently went before the Assembly Committee on Public Safety — is rather wacky, as it was drafted as a human trafficking bill and has undergone significant revisions. It includes a clause stating, "It is unlawful for a person who is addicted to the use of any drug to drive a vehicle." Daskal sees some sinister mechanisms.
"My take on it politically is that the government's going to be losing a lot of money [after legalization] because they'll no longer charge people with cultivation or possession," he said, adding that people who are stoned actually drive better than people who aren't, because they're more careful. Sounds scientific.
"Marijuana/cannabis makes people driving with alcohol in their systems actually better drivers than if they had only alcohol in their systems," he doubled down in a follow-up email. Daskal could not immediately give us numbers on how many DUI cases he had successfully defended.
AAA is calling for better roadside tests to prove impairment, tests that rely on behavioral and physiological evidence. The old chestnut "recite the alphabet backwards" might work for some, but Journal staffers have some additional suggestions on how to judge if you're too high to drive.
1. Did you hit a pothole on Port Kenyon Road, freak out, get out to see if you'd accidentally hit a dog, then lock your keys in the car?
2. Sublime: Just bitchin', or really bitchin'?
3. They got to the four-way stop first, didn't they? Didn't they?
4. Look at your hand. No, really look at it.
5. Are you on your way to White Castle after watching Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle only to remember that Humboldt County doesn't have a White Castle and get lost and end up in that part of McKinleyville where there are those houses that look like castles, which is really fucking trippy?
6. Finish this sentence: Did you ever think about how ...