New law will ban open containers of pot in cars

Technically, smoking pot while driving a car has been legal in Washington for more than two years.

That will change this fall when a new state law banning open containers of pot in vehicles goes into effect.

Among other provisions dealing with impaired driving, House Bill 1276 prohibits transporting unsealed packages of marijuana products in a car’s passenger area.

That means loose joints, open bags of bud or partially consumed packages of marijuana-infused edibles will need to be kept in a vehicle’s trunk or behind its rearmost row of seats to avoid violating the new law, which takes effect Sept. 26.

Shelly Baldwin, spokeswoman for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, said her agency pushed for the change so that the state’s rules governing marijuana would more closely resemble those for alcohol. State law already prohibits unsealed or partially consumed containers of alcohol in the passenger cabin of a vehicle.

Initiative 502, which voters approved in 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana use in Washington, established a legal limit for how much active THC — the psychotropic in marijuana — can be in a person’s blood while they drive. But it didn’t explicitly outlaw drivers or their passengers from consuming marijuana while driving, or otherwise having unsealed packages of marijuana within reach.

“We’re really trying to separate using marijuana from driving, just like we do with alcohol,” Baldwin said. She said the changes are essentially “a clarity of the law.”

Even though a few medical marijuana advocates had argued that marijuana shouldn’t be treated like alcohol, given the different ways the substances appear to affect drivers, Baldwin said the open container ban for pot didn’t garner much opposition this year as it went through the Legislature.

State Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, said the goal of the bill — which makes several changes to the state’s impaired driving statutes — is to “make our streets safer today than they were yesterday.”

“As a law enforcement officer, I’ve seen way too many times when people who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol have killed or caused horrific injuries to people on our highways,” said Klippert, a Benton County sheriff’s deputy who sponsored House Bill 1276. “We don’t want that to happen anymore.”

Klippert’s bill also restores the state Department of Licensing’s ability to automatically suspend a person’s driver’s license if a blood test shows he or she is legally impaired by marijuana.

Under Washington’s legal marijuana law, those who get caught driving with a blood content of at least 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter are supposed to be subject to an automatic driver’s license suspension of 90 days or more.

But in 2013, lawmakers inadvertently took away the Licensing Department’s power to automatically suspend someone’s license in such cases.

Klippert’s bill ensures that an automatic license suspension will once again take place if someone is shown to have driven while legally impaired by marijuana, Baldwin said. Drivers who fail or refuse a breath test for alcohol impairment already get their licenses suspended immediately under state law.

Baldwin said the threat of an immediate license suspension can be a more effective deterrent for high drivers than a drawn out prosecution.

“It’s really important for changing behavior, which is really what we’re after,” Baldwin said.