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Thursday, March 12, 2015

California Lawmakers Give Up On Marijuana DUIs — For Now

Posted By on Thu, Mar 12, 2015 at 11:56 AM

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Legalization is still in California's future, but marijuana is occupying state lawmakers' minds in the present.

About 20 bills that deal with cannabis in some regard were introduced in the Legislature before the deadline for new laws last month. These include the latest attempt at regulating the state's billion-dollar marijuana industry, regulations of synthetic marijuana packaging and how much seized weed police can destroy.

But what's not included, for the first time in three sessions, is a bill imposing criminal penalties for drivers with cannabinoids in their systems. After two straight losses, lawmakers have decided against crafting laws cracking down on stoned drivers — and this is a good thing.

As opponents said time and again, the last two proposed laws would have penalized the stoned as well as the stone-cold sober.
Currently, you can be busted for a marijuana DUI in California if law enforcement makes the determination that you are high while driving and that your highness is impairing your driving ability. Likewise, you can successfully defend yourself by claiming that either you are not high, or that you are high but not impaired, according to various defense attorneys.

Why did lawmakers push for stricter controls? It doesn't appear there's any link between an increase of marijuana use and an increase of traffic fatalities. That's too bad for prohibitionists, who use scare tactics involving toking school bus drivers to oppose legalization. According to National Transportation Highway Safety Administration data crunched by California NORML, fatal accidents dropped "from 3,148 to 2,632 between 1999 and 2012" despite a spike in marijuana use.

Of the fatal crashes, 402 victims had cannabis in their bodies in 2012, way up from 105. But this is misleading. This does not mean there are more stoned drivers — this means there are more people using marijuana. THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid that denotes cannabis use in drug tests, is fat-soluble. This means it stays in the body long after its effects have worn off.

This is in stark contrast to alcohol, which is a rarity in substances: how much alcohol is in your body is directly proportional to how impaired you are. This is why a BAC test is a fair measure of impairment — but it's also why nanograms of THC per liter of blood isn't.

One effort to make California's streets safe from cannabis consumers would have set a level of "2 nanograms/milligram of THC in blood," according to Califoria NORML.

That's "a level that has been shown to persist in regular users for as long as six days after last use," according to CA NORML director Dale Gieringer. This led Gierginer and others to dub the THC-driving laws "Sober DUI" bills.

There's no such effort in the Legislature this year, despite warnings from Assemblyman Jim Frazier of Solano County that he'd reintroduce last year's failed effort.

"I think they figured out that there's not good evidence for it," Gieringer told us. "The more we look at it, it's not the scientific way to go."

Some kind of roadside test to determine impairment, not levels of compounds in your body, is the way to go, he said. "We need realistic tests for impairment, instead of spending all this time measuring chemicals in the system," he said.

Not that the notion of monitoring drivers' weed intake is dead. Such a provision could, in theory, be slipped into a medical marijuana regulation bill. But that would mean that regulations would have to be passed — something lawmakers haven't been able to get done, either.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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