Now that we’re moving from the “if we’re going to legalize marijuana” into the “when and how” phase, one obstacle facing the marijuana movement is the debate over so-called “stoned driving.” If we’re going to win this debate, we’d better stop making the same mistakes that got us five nanogram THC limits in Washington’s and Colorado’s legalization.
Here are some of the common responses I’ve heard and read from well-meaning marijuana activists on the “stoned driving” issue. I’ll give you some thoughts on what that sounds like to those who don't smoke pot and are uninformed.
When we say: We should judge marijuana-using drivers by their observed impairment, not some THC reading.
They hear: We should wait until a stoner gets behind the wheel and exhibits some impairment, like crossing the center line and having a head-on collision.
When we say: It has always been illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana; we should continue our current procedures.
They hear: We’re going to change nothing about catching stoned drivers, but we’re going to make it much easier for drivers to get stoned.
When we say: Chronic marijuana users build up a tolerance and show no impairment even when above suggested limits.
They hear: Those who smoke the most pot have been driving while high all along and think they're fine behind the wheel.
When we say: Different users can have markedly different tolerance to THC.
They hear: Nobody can really tell how much marijuana makes you too stoned to drive and now that we're legalizing, all those newbies who didn’t toke when it was illegal have any tolerance at all.
What then, must we do to win the “stoned driving” issue?
First, align ourselves with the public as crusaders against impaired driving. We cannot be perceived as shrugging our shoulders and dismissing any concerns about stoned people behind the wheel.
We say: Now that we’re legalizing marijuana, we must ensure that responsible marijuana use means no smoking and driving.
Second, we must start dismantling the “treat it like alcohol” framework with some “marijuana ain’t alcohol” ideas.
We say: Marijuana is chemically different from alcohol, so the law enforcement tools used to detect alcohol impairment won’t work with marijuana impairment.
Third, we must complain that the proposed THC limits and breathalyzers won’t fulfill our shared mission because they won’t reliably detect impairment.
We say: No matter where we set a “stoned driving” THC limit, many unimpaired drivers will be busted for no good reason and some impaired drivers will get off for being “under the limit.”
Finally, we must offer some alternatives, because it is not enough to just say “keep doing what we’ve been doing” when we’re removing the prohibition that the public believes is a deterrent to “stoned driving.”
We say: Education of marijuana consumers, better training of police officers, and laws against used paraphernalia and accessible marijuana in the driver’s compartment are the effective ways to reduce marijuana-impaired driving.
I hope these tips can help the debate, but I fear we may already be too late. When it was urine tests that detect marijuana use within a week or blood tests that detect marijuana use within a day, it was easier to set the frame that THC limits don’t work because they’ll just be catching pot smokers, not those who were too stoned to drive. But with newer technologies like the Breathalyzer that will detect use within a couple of hours, we risk appearing to defend people’s right to toke up and then get right behind the wheel.
The driving issue is one we may have to bend on or else it will break us. I was around in the early Eighties when Mothers Against Drunk Driving mobilized and turned a country that loves beer and states' rights into one that succumbed to federal extortion for a nationwide 21 drinking age. The power of a moral panic, properly focused, can overcome any social mores and the lobbying might of the most powerful corporations.
If the nationwide mood toward recreational substances and driving continues evolving into a question of responsibility (did you get behind the wheel too soon?) rather than a question of impairment (are you too messed up to drive?), there may be no political escape from a nationwide per se THC limit. If that’s the case, if a limit is inevitable, perhaps it would behoove us to fight for a higher limit rather than no limit at all.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m well aware of the science on marijuana and impairment and I think any THC limit is unscientific and unjust. However, politics is the art of the possible and we may be approaching a point politically where opposing a roadside THC detection technology is fruitless. If the choice of political battles is “fight all limits and end up with 5ng or zero tolerance” versus “fight for a really high limit and end up negotiating to a medium-high limit”, the latter would be preferable.
"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of The Russ Belville Show.