Drugged Driving Update — Recent News Stories

Since posting our article on medical marijuana, there have been several news reports about drugged driving and tragic crashes or court cases.  Here’s a quick overview:

  • June 6, 2012: http://www.khozradio.com/13817/white_county_man_sentenced_to_6_years_for_fatal_accident.html  “A White County Circuit Court judge has sentenced a man to six years in prison on a manslaughter count in connection with an accident that killed a Heber Springs woman.  Authorities say [the man’s] vehicle crossed the center line on Arkansas Highway 16 near Searcy in December 2009. Prosecutors say lab tests showed [the driver] had methamphetamine and marijuana in his system at the time of the crash.”

Taking risks with your own body isn’t the issue, it’s also taking risks with a stranger you might meet while driving.

  • http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_20418590/light-three-recent-fatal-accidents-chp-warns-drivers“Three recent fatal accidents in the county were caused by drivers under the influence of marijuana and the California Highway Patrol is urging residents to be aware of the impairing effects of the drug on driving.

    According to Santa Cruz CHP Cmdr. Matt Olson, 30 percent of all fatal collisions statewide are caused by a driver under the influence of drugs. Santa Cruz County is unfortunately ahead of that statistic, Olson said.

    A three-car crash on Highway 129 on Feb. 10 was caused by a young woman under the influence of marijuana. The accident killed the driver and seriously injured another person, Olson said.

    Last month, two men were killed in single-car accidents. Both were later determined to be under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, according to CHP. In one incident, a 35-year-old Aptos man lost control of his car and collided with a tree on Highway 1 at State Park Drive on March 18. In the other, a 21-year-old Felton man died on March 14 after his truck ran off the edge of Graham Hill Road and struck a tree.

    “These collisions are particularly tragic,” Olson said. “They each cut short the lives of young people with so much ahead of them and left behind devastated families.”  Sadly, these collisions were avoidable, he said, and CHP wants to prevent this from happening to others.

    In 2010, four of seven fatal accidents investigated in Santa Cruz County were caused by marijuana DUI, though in 2011, not one life was lost to a drug or alcohol-impaired driver. In response to the drug-impaired driving deaths in 2010, more CHP officers received Drug Recognition Expert Training. This year, every CHP officer in the county will receive Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement training to address the problem of impaired driving in the county.

    Whether illicitly or legally obtained, marijuana has a profoundly negative effect on the ability to safely drive a car, said Olson. Prescription and other illegal drugs also impair drivers.”

  • http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-04/D9U82C0O0.htm“Medical marijuana law no defense for Mich. drivers” – By ED WHITE

    “Michigan’s medical marijuana law doesn’t shield people from charges if they are caught driving after using the drug, the state appeals court ruled Wednesday in another significant decision involving the 2008 voter-approved law.

    A three-judge panel sided with the Grand Traverse County prosecutor in northern Michigan by restoring a criminal case against Rodney Koon, 50, a medical marijuana user who was stopped in 2010 for exceeding the speed limit by nearly 30 mph. He admitted smoking marijuana six hours earlier, and a blood test revealed the drug in his body.

    Michigan law has zero tolerance for drivers who show evidence of certain drugs, but more than 130,000 people have state-issued cards allowing them to use marijuana to alleviate pain and other symptoms of chronic illness.

    Two courts dismissed the charge against Koon, saying prosecutors had to show he was impaired. The appeals court, however, said the medical marijuana law “does not permit all types of medical use of marijuana under all circumstances.”

    “Driving is a particularly dangerous activity,” judges David Sawyer, Peter O’Connell and Amy Ronayne Krause wrote in the ruling. “Schedule 1 substances are considered particularly inimical to a drivers’ ability to remain in maximally safe control of their vehicles. The danger of failing to do so affects not only the driver, but anyone else in the vicinity.”

    A message seeking comment from Koon’s attorney, James Hunt, was not immediately returned. In a court filing, Hunt argued that drivers who use medical marijuana should be treated like other people who legally consume prescription drugs.

    A statewide association of Michigan prosecutors had called for the result delivered by the appeals court. There always will be some conduct that is considered legal, the group said, but only before someone gets behind the wheel of a car.

“Even texting, conduct that is otherwise legal and might even, at times, involve the communication of protected content under the First Amendment, is prohibited while operating a motor vehicle” in Michigan, prosecutors said in a court filing.

Many disputes over medical marijuana have hit the appeals court. In a major decision last year, the court said the new law doesn’t allow the sale of medical marijuana through pot shops. The case has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.”

Unlike the legal alcohol limit, there are currently no toxicity standards for narcotics. That can make it tough for prosecutors handling drug-related cases.
Even if someone is arrested for being impaired, prosecutors say cases involving drugs can be difficult to try.

“Often times jurors assume, incorrectly, that prescription drugs should be treated differently. But the reality is, if they impair your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, they qualify for in the vehicle code section as a drug,” explains Wagner.

District Attorney Ricky Babin said Thursday there is evidence of illegal drug use by a mother driving the car in a February fatal crash on Stringer Bridge Road that led to the deaths of her two young daughters. The car…sank into Black Bayou after it left the roadway at 9:41 p.m. Feb. 21, according to a Louisiana State Police state report.  The crash report says laboratory tests of [the driver’s] blood sample turned up evidence of prescription drugs: hydrocodone, diazepam, venlafaxine and norvenlafaxine. A blood-alcohol analysis found no alcohol in her system.

Medical Marijuana & Driving Safely: Compatible or Paradox?

A recent news article titled; “In the medical marijuana age, how high is too high to drive?” introduced the idea of writing new traffic law to define legal limits for drugged driving. 

This concept was brought to light in Colorado by state Senator Steve King.  Twelve years ago Colorado legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes and reportedly more than 85,000 people have been certified by the state health department to use it.  Looking at the time period from 2006 to 2010, there were more than 300 fatal accidents involving drivers who tested positive for cannabis.  These sobering facts are the main reason for introducing the concept of a legal limit for marijuana intoxication.

Other state legislators are making the connection between drugged driving and traffic fatalities.  In California, Assemblywoman Norma Torres reportedly wants to set a zero-tolerance ban on driving under the influence of any drug, including marijuana.

Critics of these proposals argue that the ways that cannibis affects the human body are different than alcohol, the practical testing hasn’t been developed, and medical science hasn’t concluded what limit should be set as acceptable versus unacceptable for driving while having previously used medical marijuana (or other drugs for that matter).

How are states handling this now and what do they propose?

“According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states have what are known as “per se” laws regarding drugs and driving. That means anyone driving with traces of an illegal or impairing drug in his or her system is breaking the law. This is closer to a “zero tolerance” policy than the 0.08 percent blood alcohol content states have for drunk driving.

However, of those states that have per se laws, Arizona, Delaware, Michigan, Nevada and Rhode Island also allow medicinal marijuana, setting up an inherent conflict in their laws.

Marijuana is currently on unsure legal footing: Even as states are beginning to create a legal framework for allowing use of the drug, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug alongside LSD and heroin and has recently begun raiding dispensaries and arresting cultivators. The drug’s tenuous legal hold has created “a mess for enforcement for impaired driving,” says Chris Cochran, deputy director of public information for the California Office of Transportation Safety.

…In an attempt to create something like the clear standard that exists for alcohol intoxication, Nevada set a limit for THC in the blood at 2 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. That’s about 2 billionths of a gram of THC – one gram is about the weight of a paperclip – in one drop of blood.

In Colorado, state King’s bill would set a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. And in Washington state, the ballot initiative that would legalize recreational use of marijuana would also set a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

Advocates of medical marijuana say the science isn’t supportive of adopting such specific limits. They worry that this approach will cause drivers who aren’t impaired but have lingering traces of THC in their blood to lose their drivers’ licenses. [emphasis added]

Research has not found a consistent intoxication standard similar to a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content.

While most “over the road” truckers have substance abuse screening programs in place (FMCSR Part 382, et.al.), many commercial fleet operators are not regulated in this area.  The question remains, will drivers who get approved for medical use of marijuana and report for duty on Monday morning drive safely?  What happens if they are involved in a tragic collision with fatalities and the circumstances lead to extended litigation with discovery of the alleged “impairment” of the driver?

Would these laws (as proposed in Colorado and California) be enforceable and/or helpful in curbing driving “under the influence” of medical marijuana?

Do these proposals go far enough?  Is it equally important to document what concentration of antihistamines, Valium, antipsychotics, barbiturates, and codeine (et.al.) is “too much” in a person’s system to drive safely?

Come join our discussion on this and other topics at our networking group on Linked In! (search groups for “SafetyFirst Client Networking”)