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Addressing driver impairment difficult

By: The Gazette Op/Ed
March 22, 2015 Updated: March 22, 2015 at 6:28 am
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In Colorado, if you drive while impaired by drugs such as marijuana, you can be arrested and charged with a DUI. But the logistics of determining a driver’s level of THC (marijuana’s active ingredient) impairment have yet to be standardized, and there is no continuity in reporting arrest data for marijuana impairment.

See also: Regulation still ineffective

The state’s marijuana driving impairment limits could be entirely too high. A recently released report issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is at odds with that limit. State officials also concede the toll THC takes on road safety is likely underreported and that Colorado’s law enforcement agencies and the Colorado Department of Transportation aren’t equipped to gather the data needed to determine a full and accurate scope of the problem.

See also: State prevention efforts criticized

“The challenges with the data are that reporting is not specific to marijuana, there are not clear standards for reporting marijuana impairment, and there is not consistency or standardization in reporting from local levels to the Colorado Department of Transportation,” states a September report released by the Governor’s Office of Marijuana Coordination. “While fatality data associated with marijuana use are available, there is limited information on accidents not involving fatality or serious injury.”

Then, there’s this from the same report: 

“Based on several review papers, it is estimated that there is a twofold increase in the risk of an accident if there is any measurable amount of THC in the bloodstream. Risks can be even higher when marijuana is used in combination with alcohol. Blood-alcohol content can be tested on the side of the road with a Breathalyzer, but the same is not true for marijuana.” 

Medical experts warned state lawmakers that even 1 nanogram of THC per milliliter of whole blood could double the risk of a car accident.

Nevertheless, the state Legislature set the THC impairment limit five times higher.

“The current policies are not rooted in science,” said Marco Vasquez, chief of the Erie Police Department and a member of a state task force appointed to identify data the state of Colorado needs to gather and analyze to determine marijuana’s impact on key aspects of public health and safety. “And while many voters might have been well-intentioned, I don’t think they understood how difficult, resource-intensive and costly the enforcement of just marijuana driving laws — forget all of the other marijuana enforcement that has to happen — would be.”

DUI enforcement shines a harsh light on one of the chief fallacies of marijuana-legalization supporters’ claims, said Vasquez, who served as former chief of investigations for the Colorado Division of Medical Marijuana Enforcement.

“When it comes to driving, marijuana is not necessarily safer than alcohol — and in practice, (law enforcement) officers all over the state will tell you that they’re seeing people using both substances, which is even worse,” he said.

Officers across the state agree. Among them is Sgt. Craig Simpson of the Colorado Springs Police Department, who said that even when an officer suspects a driver is impaired by alcohol and cannabis, “typically, just the alcohol is going to be reported.”

Law enforcement officers, including Simpson and Vasquez, give many reasons for this. Among them:

• The difficulty of determining THC impairment. There are no Breathalyzer equivalents to determine marijuana impairment easily, and because many drivers pulled over on suspicion of THC impairment register at less than the state’s 5 nanogram limit, convictions are difficult to land.

• The cost of testing. A Breathalyzer and related analysis typically costs a department around $30, while the blood tests required to help determine THC impairment cost around $300, Vazquez said.

• The time required to investigate possible marijuana impairment. Because the state is still ramping up training to put more officers certified in drug recognition on patrol, even one traffic stop for a suspected THC-
impaired driver can take an officer who is not certified in DRE off his or her beat for several hours.

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