If marijuana is legalized, driving while high will still be illegal, cops say

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By LANCE COHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Law enforcement officials are worried about enforcing driving while high laws if the recreational marijuana ballot proposal is approved this November.

“It’s worrisome because I don’t want to see people smoke marijuana and think that since they can have it now that they are okay to drive,” said Tim Cook, the undersheriff at the Cheboygan County Sheriff Department. “People may soon be allowed to possess marijuana, but this doesn’t change the fact that drugged driving is still against the law.”

There is no good way to test drug-impaired drivers and roadside tests aren’t that effective, said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Every officer, when they encounter someone on the road who they suspect of driving under the influence of alcohol, can easily deliver a preliminary breath test,” Stevenson said. “This isn’t the case for those driving under the influence of drugs because you need to have specialized training.”

Cook said some officers are trained to observe, identify and articulate the signs of impairment related to drugs and alcohol.

But the state has only about 60 drug recognition experts – officers with extensive training in determining when someone is driving under the influence of drugs, Stevenson said.

Drug recognition experts are taught to follow a 12-step drug recognition procedure including a breath alcohol test, eye exam and divided-attention test, said Paul Bernier, the city attorney for Livonia.

Driving under the influence of alcohol and of drugs are both dangerous and illegal, he said.

Stevenson said that because there are so few of them, police departments have to share them back and forth.

Drugs such as marijuana stay in a person’s saliva and urine much longer than alcohol but the effects of driving while under the influence may have already dissipated, Stevenson said.

Driving under the influence of drugs is causing an increasing number of motor vehicle crashes and fatalities, according to a survey  by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This survey found that 12.6 percent of weekend nighttime drivers in 2013-14 tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component that gives marijuana its psychological effects, compared to 8.6 percent in 2007.

Statewide, 1,028 people died in fatal car crashes last year, according to a report by the Michigan Traffic Crash Facts. In 10.8 percent of those crashes, the driver was under the influence of drugs.

Many of the states that have seen increases in drug-related accidents have legalized recreational marijuana in recent years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“While that may be a statistic, I don’t think there is a direct correlation or causation between the two,” said Matthew Abel, executive director of the Michigan affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“Even if there are more people in accidents with cannabis in their system, the drug is not necessarily to blame for those accidents,” Abel said.

Traces of cannabis can stay in a person’s system for up to a month after it’s used and those traces are not psychoactive, Abel said.

People need to understand the effects of their cannabis usage before they decide to drive, he said.

“Those who really have problems driving with cannabis are either new drivers or new cannabis users,” Abel said. “When you put those two together, that is a definite problem.”

Cook said the public needs to be educated about the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs, including marijuana and opioids, Cook said.

“People simply do not have a good understanding of what being high means and what the consequences of being arrested for this are,” Cook said. “The solution is that if people want to smoke marijuana, then they should not drive.”