The Washington State Democrats have officially endorsed I-502, the initiative from New Approach Washington (NAW) that aims to legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and establish regulated markets for its production and sale. A number of internet commenters are treating this as a new milestone, but it’s not the first time the state’s Democrats have endorsed a legalization initiative. The Washington State Democrats also endorsed Sensible Washington’s I-1068 in 2010.
But one thing is missing from both Just Say Now’s post and this editorial in the Spokesman-Review, and it remains the most divisive aspect of the initiative: the proposal of a 5ng/ml per se marijuana threshold for all drivers.
To most people, the idea of creating a system for marijuana similar to how alcohol is dealt with is a no-brainer. And the backers of New Approach Washington make no bones about the fact that finding an initiative that can pass a statewide vote is their priority. But the science behind this limit is simply not there, and it could have serious repercussions not only for medical marijuana users, but for anyone who uses the roads in Washington.
As I wrote last time I discussed this initiative, a ng/ml measurement of the active marijuana THC compound is not an indicator of impairment the way that a blood-alcohol measurement is. Medical marijuana patients often have very high ng/ml measurements at all times, even if they haven’t used it in over a day. And in some cases, those individuals no longer experience the psychoactive effects from the drug that creates the impairment in the first place.
Recently in Colorado, attempts to enact a limit similar to the one NAW proposes have stalled several times. Last week, a workgroup that was put together to establish a 5ng/ml limit ultimately decided not to move forward, citing these problems. Compounding the issue is the fact that – despite what many people seem to take for granted about driving while stoned – there’s very little evidence showing any correlation between testing positive for THC and road fatalities. In fact, the link above points out that the numbers of road fatalities have plummeted by 20 percent in Colorado since medical marijuana became legal.
And another study has shown that there’s no increased incidence of accidents for even up to double the proposed limit (10ng/ml). (see update below)
The reasons for that are likely a combination of the inaccuracy of the ng/ml metric as a valid measurement of impairment, as well as the somewhat counter-intuitive nature of driving while stoned. While driving under the influence of marijuana is certainly not a smart idea, it tends to have some of the opposite effects that alcohol does. The common generality is that a drunk driver will drive through a red light while a stoned driver will stop at a green light. Alcohol impairment tends to go alongside reckless and aggressive driving while marijuana impairment tends to go alongside overly-cautious and passive driving. Despite that, the main reason not to drive stoned is that you won’t be able to act quickly in an emergency situation. Driving requires your full attention, and if there were a way to accurately measure impairment, I’d be perfectly fine with sanctions for those who aren’t capable of operating their car safely. But there just isn’t right now.
Up until now, charges for driving under the influence of marijuana are relatively rare. Without a per se limit, most defense attorneys know how to defeat them, and it’s often not worth an officer’s time to take a driver to get a blood draw that won’t hold up in court. In order to obtain a conviction, prosecutors have to prove impairment in other ways, which is difficult to do. However, if this limit is approved by the voters, that burden of proof is gone. What would happen then isn’t entirely clear, but it’s not hard to imagine that officers will be more likely to demand a blood draw for any situation in which they can conjure up probable cause (which is not very hard). In fact, one attorney I spoke with last month stated that under this new limit, if a medical marijuana patient is doing nothing wrong, but is struck by a reckless driver (who then dies), he or she could be given a blood draw and then charged with negligent homicide.
The folks behind NAW think that none of this will matter in the election, and they very well could be right. Medical marijuana patients make up only about 1-2% of the overall population. The vast majority of people will see this provision as a plus (as the state Democrats did), and perhaps for a small percentage of folks, it will be the difference between a yes and a no vote. But what worries me the most isn’t even the additional risk for medical marijuana patients. It’s the fact that we already have a very difficult time keeping drunk drivers off the road. The prospect of expanding the scope of that enforcement to include a subset of the population that is statistically far less likely than drunk drivers to kill someone is bad prioritization and will inevitably lead to even more repetitive drunk drivers falling through the cracks of the system.
I’ve had some good discussions with supporters of the NAW initiative, and the difference really comes down to how one sees this whole process playing out. While it would be nice to finally see a statewide legalization initiative finally pass, it’s also possible that if we pass it, the federal courts could strike down some parts of the law, but still leave us with the DUI limit and only a one-ounce decriminalization (which a number of states already have). There are some concessions I’m very willing to make in the greater effort of ending marijuana prohibition, but this attempt to appease the anti-science beast is still a bridge too far.
UPDATE: The study linked above (which I’ve struck) was using a different metric for measuring ng/ml than what the I-502 initiative proposes. The study only claims that there’s no difference up to the 5ng/ml limit. The complete study can be read here.
F.U. Manchu spews:
Shorter lee: people should be able to get high and drive. People should also be able to get high and operate cranes, nuclear plants, aircraft, boats, etc…….
From the post above:
Is it too much to ask the moron trolls to at least read the post they’re commenting on?
Politically Incorrect spews:
I’m grateful to you for keeping up the fight against this insane policy against cannabis. Surely, people should not use cannabis and drive. Neither should we drink and drive, text and drive, talk on our cell phones and drive or eat fast food meals and drive.
But all that does not preclude legalization of cannabis. This crazy, crazy system is just unexplainable when one considers the hazards of alcohol, tobacco, and, for that matter, over-the-counter medications! Let’s finally come to the realization that cannabis should be made legal, regualted by our current system that regulates the sale of hard liquor, and taxed accordingly.
While I usually disagree with most Democrats, particularly the “progressive” Democrats, they have made the correct decision to come out and support legalization of cannabis. It’s about personal liberty, not a bunch of 1930’s propaganda against a naturally-occurring herb!
At the higher levels of alchohol impairment, you see the reckless and agressive driving which makes the news. At the lower (marginal) levels, you tend to see “focused driving”, where the driver is concentrating so hard on not weaving or doing other things which might indicate drunk driving, that he misses the “obvious” – that the headlights are turned on, that the light has turned red, etc.
I suspect that with marijuana impairment, even though you might see more cautious conduct by the driver, you still see the “focused driving” problem.
But the essential question is that, barring any reliable method of measuring impairment, should we allow marijuana legalization to proceed?
If we say no, then we ignore the fact that lots of other drugs causing impairment are legal, and we leave it to the driver (and ultimately, the officer) to guess as to whether the driving is affected. In short, the old caution about “refraining from operating heavy machinery” while using certain drugs is still good advice – and the automobile is the one type of heavy machinery which Americans operate every day.
David Aquarius spews:
Been fighting this battle a lot lately.
Over at Firedoglake, Jon Walker’s post on I-502 gave me cause to comment for just this reason.
As I said there, I am tired of the endless compromise. Progressives have been forced by our own leadership to start the game at our own 5 yard line. No room to move, no room to play but lots of ways to lose.
Why must we inject this BS into the law? Contrary to what the supporters have said, there will be no ‘removing it once it passes’. This per se limit will be written in stone. The other part is the precedent it will send to other states that are on the brink of legalization. If they see a fairly progressive state like Washington pass this law then they should do it too.
The last thing I want to see after my over 30 years of anti-prohibition activism is legalization with a poison pill for patients (and consumers). Especially one that is based on fear and ignorance, not science. A patient would have to go at least a day or two without medicating just to legally drive to the store. How can we ask that of people in pain or who are on chemo?
I will not support nor vote for I-502. You don’t know how hard that is to say coming from a person who’s been fighting the good fight for so long. I can’t put my values aside just to get a win.
The leadership of Washington’s anti-prohibition campaign should be shamed by this. It’s cruel and unnecessary, placing an unfair burden on people who have the most to lose.
At least it’s a step in the right direction. I’ll be supporting I-502 unless somebody comes up with a better idea that is also viable to voters.
What’s the point of continuing to hurt ourselves? Haven’t we had enough of that by backing Obama and Gregoire…who have done more to gut the medical marijuana law in this state than any Republican.
Troy Barber spews:
A point often missed in this discussion is that the current RCW already effectively deals with impaired driving on any substance, even cough syrup.
The “stoned driving” scare is, in my opinion, a red herring propaganda meme introduced by prohibitionists and profiteers in the legal system.
I honestly don’t fear a big increase of stoned drivers when legalization happens. Legalization needs to happen, so the science can catch up. Eventually a sound policy for impaired driving will be introduced, and hopefully with a less invasive test (not a blood draw). It is difficult for research & development to happen under prohibition.
David Aquarius spews:
Sorry, I can’t abide by the meme ‘at least it’s a step in the right direction’. There comes a point when the remedy is worse than the disease. We have to be strong enough to recognize that and make changes, even when our backs are against the wall. (Thanks Gov. Gregoire, you elitist coward!)
For example, if we were given a choice – Medicare for all, health care for every citizen tomorrow but… you have to shoot your grandmother first. Would you do it?
No bullet, no health care. Millions of people saved, the sick and injured cared for across the country but you have to put down Grandma. She lived a long life and is kinda weak. It’s getting harder and harder to buy her gifts. She keeps calling you Billy when your name is Tom. Small price to pay for universal health care, right?
My point is that just getting a win isn’t part of the game. We have to ensure that the legislation that ends prohibition is good and helps those who need it the most. It isn’t horseshoes where getting close counts for something.
There will be NO way to fix this should it pass. The per se limit will be entrenched as the law of the land. It will be another weapon used against patients and consumers by the Feds and local LEA’s who still suffer from Reefer Madness.
I-502 is bad legislation. It has a lot of good in it but it’s bad at the core.
No matter how much frosting you put on this cowpie, it still ain’t birthday cake.
If you’re waiting for an acceptable to voters marijuana legalization initiative that meets with your approval 100%, you’re going to be waiting a long, long time. I should think, as someone who claims to have put in “30 years of anti-prohibition activism” you would have realized that by now..
Both major parties are on the drug war gravy train. Look at California’s Prop 19. Leading Democrats such as Brown, Boxer, and Feinstein all opposed it, contributing to it’s defeat..
In order to get anything done at all, in order to speak to the voters who are currently sitting on the fence, compromises need to be made.
I’m not content with the status quo…are you?
Allison Bigelow spews:
One thing this article misses is that there are many age 21 and younger that will be caught up in the system because this initiative creates a “0 nl/mg per se” amount for them. Overzealous law enforcement that “presume” that a young person is intoxicated on marijuana can drive that person into the hospital to draw their blood and if it is above 0 the person can be charged with DUI. This will create great expense and loss of opportunity for many young people who may not have used marijuana for 30 days, because they will test above 0 sometimes even up to 60 days.
The best thing we could do right now is to request that the ACLU stop NAW and put their full support behind WA state’s House Bill 1550, now, before it’s too late. It was supported by the same list of people that support NAW, but it is much better for the state of Washington and all of it’s citizens.
I called the Democrat committee and NAW today, and suggested that they both stop forwarding that flawed initiative, and instead ask their representatives to forward the much better piece of legalization legislation, House Bill 1550, and do what they can to support it passing.
Shaun Delaney spews:
Thank you for a Great Post! This has helped me heaps in my current research projet.