Massachusetts Launches Stoned Driving Prevention Strategies

With recreational marijuana established in Massachusetts, the state launches new strategies targeting stoned driving. Canada proposes THC limits.

According to the Associated Press, Massachusetts State Police announced they are increasing the number of drug recognition experts -- officers with special training in detecting those under the influence -- to combat stoned driving. The agency is currently focusing on detecting motorists under the influence of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

There are several strategies the state is employing to reduce the incidence of stoned driving because evidence from other states that operating under the influence (OUI) of psychoactive cannabis has public safety impacts is mounting.

Marijuana-Legal States Show Increased Motorist Collisions

Massachusetts recently passed legislation creating its structure for legal sale of recreational marijuana, a process approved by the majority of state voters in the November 2016 election, along with seven other states approving marijuana business expansions. The state police pointed to a recent insurance industry study about increased motorist collisions experienced in other states where pot is legal as a cause for their concern.

In the first study of its kind, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found that collision claims in Colorado, Washington and Oregon went up 2.7 percent since recreational marijuana sales became legal. The report indicates the collision experience post marijuana legalization varies from state to state, but HLDI said the results of the combined analysis are significant.

Mass. Law Enforcement Strategies Targeting Stoned Driving

With recreational pot now legal, there is pressure on government leaders in Massachusetts to change perceptions that it is safer to drive stoned than drunk, the Worcester Telegram reported.

This isn’t a Cheech and Chong movie, where everybody is kind of laughing and driving along and everyone is laid back,” said Arthur Kinsman, regional administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Massachusetts State Police Col. Richard McKeon said the agency will increasingly rely on drug recognition experts and officers trained in identifying drug impairment. Currently, there are 33 drug recognition experts in the state police force, and 141 total in local police departments statewide. McKeon indicated there is 2018 funding available to add another 60.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation also announced there will be increased sobriety checkpoints. However, prosecuting stoned driving offenses is still a challenge without an approved test of OUI for THC. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is still deciding a marijuana OUI case,  The Commonwealth v.  Thomas J. Gerhardt, argued in January. The court's decision could essentially decide the weight of field sobriety tests in Massachusetts courts going forward. In May the state waived the 130-day rule on the court, and no date is posted for the decision.

State Campaign Seeks to Change Public Perceptions About Stoned Driving

A second effort launched by Mass Highway Safety -- the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security's Highway Safety Division -- is a new campaign ad for Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over:

Medical Marijuana Industry Supportive of Stoned Driving Awareness

The medical marijuana industry is generally supportive of efforts to reduce stoned driving. Mike Dundas, chief executive of the medical marijuana dispensary Sage Naturals in Cambridge, Mass., said staff is trained in discussing the risks of operating motor vehicles under the influence of pot with customers.

We urge other dispensaries to join us in partnering with the state to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking and driving,” said Dundas.

Medical Marijuana, Inc., which makes a variety of psychoactive and non-psychoactive cannabis products, posted the following safety warning on its website:

"Cannabis users may need to take some precautions because of the euphoric side effects that some marijuana products can elicit. Products containing THC can temporarily cause drowsiness, as well as impaired memory and reaction time. It’s therefore recommended that those using marijuana not operate machinery or drive a vehicle after consuming cannabis."

In February, Fox25 News Boston conducted a stoned driving experiment and invited Dr. Jordan Tishler of Inhale MD also in Cambridge, who prescribes medical marijuana, to observe.

"What we saw today was that cannabis does affect your driving. That it is dose-dependent, meaning the more they used, the less competent they were," he concluded.

Candada Proposes Legal THC Limits Governing Stoned Driving

In 2015, Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Diving (MADD) Canada, told the Globe and Mail he supported an on-scene saliva test with a legal limit of 5 nanograms/millilitre (ng/ml) THC.

Proposed Canadian legislation updated in April, which the government indicated "takes into account the best available scientific evidence related to cannabis," offers the following THC limits for OUI offenses:

  • 2 ng but less than 5 ng of THC: Having this amount within two hours of driving could be punishable by a maximum fine of up to $1,000.00 Canadian.
  • 5 ng or more of THC: Having this amount within two hours of driving would be considered a hybrid offence that could be prosecuted either by indictment or summary conviction, depending on case severity, mandatory penalties of $1,000.00 for a first offence with escalating penalties, including imprisonment for repeat offenses.
  • Combined THC and Alcohol: Having a blood alcohol concentration of 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood, combined with a THC level greater than 2.5 ng/ml within two hours of driving would also be a hybrid offence, as above.

Maximum penalties for higher THC levels related to OUI offenses would mirror existing laws for impaired driving.

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