Drugged driving standards needed — and soon

Thirty-five years ago, the notion of legalized marijuana seemed like an idea whose time would never come.

Sure, there was discussion. And there were proponents.

Usually wearing hemp necklaces and NORML T-shirts. “It’s no more dangerous than alcohol,” they would say.

“But who needs more problems like alcohol abuse and drunken driving crashes?” came the typical reply.

Instead, we fought what President Reagan called a war on drugs. We spent a trillion dollars to try to keep American citizens from “frying their brains” on drugs, as one commercial implied. We ended up with prisons bursting with incarcerated drug offenders. Yet there is little evidence to indicate drugs were any less available.

Then, in this decade, the national conversation changed directions altogether, opening the door to legalization of marijuana, first for medicinal purposes and eventually recreational use.

Decriminalization of marijuana offenses came with the cultural turn. Thirty-three states have some form of legalization.

Now, legal recreational use of marijuana could soon be in the tri-states. The Illinois Legislature on Friday passed the measure, which is expected to receive Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature. Illinois thus would be among 11 states with legal weed.

(Meanwhile, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds vetoed a bill that would have expanded the use of medical marijuana.)

Illinois law enforcement organizations are already lobbying for more money to address anticipated safety issues.

Chief among them: Driving under the influence.

Since marijuana was legalized in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, vehicle crashes there are up about 6%. Other statistics are worse: The percentage of drivers under the influence of marijuana involved in fatal accidents in Washington increased from 8% in 2013 to 17% in 2014.

In national surveys of drivers pulled over on weekend nights, the percentage of drivers under the influence of marijuana went from 9 in 2007 to 13 in 2014. That percentage has likely grown in the years since, considering more states have legalized recreational use.

Determining marijuana impairment among drivers is difficult. Unlike alcohol, THC remains in the system, so a positive test for this marijuana component doesn’t necessarily indicate the person was under its influence when behind the wheel.

Some states (including Iowa and Wisconsin) have opted for a zero-tolerance policy for THC presence among drivers. Just last week, though, a Wisconsin Senate committee discussed a measure that would loosen the law, allowing for trace amounts of THC — much to the consternation of law enforcement.

Five states — including Illinois, currently — have per se laws that limit the amount of THC in a person’s body to a specified amount. The Illinois bill calls for the creation of a task force through the Illinois State Police to study enforcement of DUI laws involving marijuana use.

Meanwhile, there’s no agreed-upon measure of marijuana impairment as there is with alcohol, and no widely accepted breath analyzer.

It’s a conundrum that needs to be addressed — ideally before pot shops start popping up in Jo Daviess County.

While the dangers of drinking and driving have been part of public health campaigns for decades, the same isn’t true for drugged driving. Studies show that marijuana users for some reason tend to think driving while high is less risky. It’s time to dispel that notion and establish marijuana impairment standards.

If recreational pot is legalized in Illinois as expected, an increase in stoned drivers is just around the corner. Until law enforcement has the tools required to strictly enforce impaired driving laws, tri-state residents can anticipate a spike in drugged driving crashes.

— Dubuque Telegraph Herald

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