With efforts across the country to legalize marijuana for medicinal use and to decriminalize possession of the drug by recreational users, our interstate highways and local roads are seeing more and more drivers impaired by marijuana. While states where use of the drug is legal under particular circumstances are using a drug test to identify impaired drivers, the American Automobile Association (AAA) believes the test is ineffective.
How the Test Works
The test currently being used in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania analyzes a suspected driver’s blood for THC, the chemical in marijuana that makes a user high. These states have established a legal threshold for impairment—much like the .08 percent blood alcohol content level used across the country. However, according to the study conducted by AAA, this threshold is arbitrary and does not accurately represent an individual user’s level of impairment. Also, unlike a roadside breathalyzer for detecting alcohol use, the THC blood test may be collected long after the driver was exhibiting impaired behavior. As a result, drivers who are truly impaired may be going free while others may be wrongly convicted.
AAA recommends that these states instead use a combination of police officers trained in identifying marijuana impairment and a blood test to determine the presence of THC, rather than a threshold. AAA believes it is important to get a handle on this problem because, in states where marijuana has been legalized, rates of fatal crashes involving the drug have doubled.
Where Kansas and Missouri Stand
Currently, the possession and use of marijuana is illegal in Missouri, although criminal charges for possession will be lowered beginning January 1, 2017. The new guidelines eliminate the possibility of jail time for marijuana infractions and significantly lower penalties for possession of less than 10 grams. There is also a possibility that a proposal will appear on the November, 2016, ballot in Missouri to legalize medical marijuana. Kansas also appears to be close to allowing limited use of medical marijuana and may also reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana. While neither state is likely to legalize the drug anytime soon, lower penalties and the availability of medical marijuana could have an impact on the safety of our roads. Considering that the drug has been legalized in our neighboring state of Colorado, the likelihood of out-of-state residents driving through Kansas and Missouri under the influence of marijuana is high.
How Marijuana Impairs Driving
Like alcohol, marijuana affects brain function, making it difficult to complete tasks that are easy for us under normal circumstances. This includes the tasks related to driving a car. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, studies have found a direct relationship between the concentration of THC in the blood and impaired driving ability. Marijuana use does the following:
- Significantly impairs judgement
- Limits motor coordination
- Slows reaction time
All of these skills are clearly essential for safe driving, so when they are impaired, it is unlikely that the driver will be able to avoid an accident. Because THC affects people so differently, it is difficult to set parameters for safe driving—which was the main finding of the AAA study—but a European study cited by the National Institute of Drug Abuse found that drivers with THC in their blood are twice as likely to be involved in a fatal accident.
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