AAA Says No Science Behind Marijuana Tests And Driving Laws

WASHINGTON – According to a study carried out by the nation’s largest automobile club, six states that allow marijuana are using legal tests that have no scientific basis. The club carrying out the study also called for scrapping those laws.

The study, which was commissioned by AAA’s safety foundation, said that it’s not possible to set a blood-test threshold for THC to reliably determine impairment. THC is the compound in marijuana that makes people high. However, the laws in five of the six states automatically presume that a driver is guilty if he or she tests higher than the limit, and will not be considered guilty if it’s lower. This results in the wrongful conviction of some drivers, whereas other unsafe drivers may be going free on the roads.

Based on these observations, it is recommended that the current laws be replaced with new ones that rely on specially trained police officers to determine if a driver is impaired. It is also recommended that tests be in place to check for the presence of THC instead of a certain threshold. Officers need to screen for several indicators of drug use, such as dilation of the pupils to the person’s behavior, tongue color etc.

This recommendation to scrap the laws in Washington, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, Montanan, and Colorado comes after legislatures in several other states consider adopting similar laws. Possibly as many as eleven states will vote on ballot measures this fall to legalize the use of marijuana for recreational or medical use, or both. The legalization of bills is also being considered by several legislatures.

AAA’s president and CEO, Marshall Doney, said, “There is understandably a strong desire by both lawmakers and the public to create legal limits for marijuana impairment in the same manner we do alcohol.” He also stated that this approach is flawed and not supported by scientific research in the case of marijuana.

It is extremely complex to determine whether someone is impaired by marijuana use, or if the person simply took the drug at some earlier time. However, in case of alcohol impairment, various reliable tests have been developed.

Similarly, there is no scientific method to show that drivers become impaired when they have a specific level of THC in their blood. A lot of it depends on the individual, as the driver could have relatively high levels of THC in their system, but they may not be impaired. This is particularly true for regular users of marijuana. However, in other cases, even small amounts of marijuana may be unsafe for drivers.

In some cases, the driver may look impaired when they are stopped by police, but they may register below the legal threshold by the time their blood is actually tested. This is because THC dissipates rapidly. In an average case, it may take two or more hours to collect blood from a suspected driver since a warrant is required and the driver has to be transported to a hospital or police station for testing.

Moreover, people who use the drug frequently may exhibit persistent levels of the drug long after use. Research also shows that THC levels decline more rapidly among occasional users. A total of nine states have zero-tolerance laws for driving and marijuana, including some states that have legalized marijuana for medical use. This not only makes the presence of THC in the driver’s blood illegal, but also the presence of its metabolites which can linger on for several weeks after use.

Mark A. R. Kleiman, a New York University professor who is specializing in issues involving drugs and criminal policy, says this makes no sense. “A law against driving with THC in your bloodstream is not a law you can know you are obeying except by never smoking marijuana or never driving,” he said. He is of the opinion that states should simply consider making it a traffic violation, instead of switching to a new kind of law as AAA recommends.

He further stated that using marijuana and driving roughly doubles the risk of a crash based on research. When comparing it with other forms of distracted driving, such as talking on a hands-free cellphone while driving, which is legal in all states, increases the risk of crashing by 4 times. Similarly, driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.12 increases the risk of crashing by about 15 times. Driving with a noisy child in the back of the car is also as dangerous as using marijuana and driving. The only exception to all this is when the driver has been using both marijuana and drinking alcohol because the two substances greatly heighten impairment when used together.

A second study was also released by the foundation that found the percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes who had recently used marijuana doubled in Washington. The study was based on data collected after the drug was legalized for recreational use in December 2012. In 2013, the share of drivers who had recently used marijuana rose from 8% to 17% in 2014.

AAA traffic safety director, Jake Nelson, said traffic fatalities went up 6% in Washington during that same time while the fatalities nationally declined.


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Matthew V. Portella

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