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Posted at 2:28 p.m. on July 31, 2014
More stoned drivers on the road because of marijuana legalization could be a serious risk, at least according to some lawmakers.
At a hearing Thursday on driving and operating other vehicles while impaired by marijuana, House Subcommittee on Government Operations chairman Rep. John L. Mica, R- Fla., said “we’re going to have more people stoned on the highways and there will be consequences.”
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official Dr. Jeff Michael told the subcommittee that right now there’s too little data to devise a federal impairment standard. His agency is working with the state of Washington to assess the change in marijuana use by drivers before and after the state’s legalization of the drug.
Mica urged Patrice Kelly, the acting director of the Department of Transportation’s Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy and Compliance to focus more intensely on states that have legalized marijuana to see if the wider availability of the drug is affecting drivers of trucks and buses and pilots of planes, complaining that DOT’s current approach is “same old same old.”
Kelly emphasized that her agency still oversees drug and alcohol testing of 5 million drivers and other transportation employees. No matter what state law might permit, it’s still illegal for them to use marijuana and operate vehicles such as buses or trucks.
But Mica said, “We need to be a little bit pre-emptive” in order to protect passengers from marijuana-impaired drivers.
Once federal agencies come up with a standard to determine the level for driving while impaired by marijuana, would Mica favor withholding federal transportation funds from states that don’t enforce the standard?
“I don’t know,” he told The Container in an interview after the hearing. “We penalize them now if they don’t comply with our standards on alcohol. Certainly there’s plenty of merit in looking at the same types of standard if they don’t comply with the marijuana standards.”
Subcommittee ranking Democrat, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D- Va. asked Michael how many traffic deaths can be attributed to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, being in the bloodstream of a driver.
“Currently, that’s difficult to say,” replied Michael. He explained that individuals response to increasing amounts of THC “is much more variable than it is for alcohol.”
The number of THC-related traffic deaths is “probably not zero,” Connolly said, but he added the lack of data to determine the impairment level is “amazing” even though marijuana has been classified a Schedule I drug under federal law for many decades.
“No one is arguing that it is a good idea” to drive after having smoked marijuana, the Virginia Democrat said, but the scarcity of data is “not a good recipe for rational public policy.”
Connolly voiced concern that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use and other states are moving in that direction even though reliable driver safety data don’t exist.
“There’s a danger in that too, because they’re going in a direction also without good science,” he said.
He said one part of the research problem is that all federal drug research must go through the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “By its very name, its mission is to prevent drug abuse. Ninety percent plus of all the research it approves is to prove the harmful effects of marijuana and THC. That’s not objective science.”