Politics & Government

State officials face questions when targeting drivers who are high

State lawmakers are looking to regulate the use of marijuana on the road, similar to how state law bans open containers of alcohol in cars.

But critics of the idea say there’s not enough evidence showing that marijuana makes you a worse driver. In fact, some medical marijuana advocates say that smoking or consuming pot can improve your driving.

The debate over the premise behind Senate Bill 5002 illustrates the challenges state officials may have in tweaking state laws surrounding marijuana: Opinions vary about how marijuana use affects driving, and some lawmakers say more research needs to be done on the topic.

Voters in Washington legalized recreational marijuana use when they passed Initiative 502 in 2012. While I-502 set a legal limit on how much delta-9 THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, can be in a driver’s blood, it didn’t specifically prohibit drivers or their passengers from smoking marijuana in vehicles, nor did it set restrictions on transporting open containers of marijuana in cars.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, would ban pot smoking and open containers of pot in vehicles, much like the state restricts drivers from having open containers of alcohol within reach.

Under Rivers’ bill, unsealed containers of pot and pot products could still be transported in the trunk of a vehicle, just not in the passenger area.

Officials with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission are supporting the legislation, citing studies that indicate a person with delta-9 THC in their system is more than twice as likely to get into a crash.

Yet Steve Sarich, a medical marijuana activist, told a Senate committee that people under the influence of marijuana may become better drivers and certainly are less dangerous than those impaired by alcohol.

Studies cited by Sarich as well as NORML, a marijuana legalization group, found that drivers affected by marijuana seem to remain aware of their impairment and often slow down or adjust their driving to compensate.

“If you have been medicating, you are very careful about your driving,” Sarich said in a phone interview. “You are worried about those cops. You really focus. And that’s what these studies have found.”

Many marijuana users appear to share Sarich’s view, to the frustration of state officials.

In a 2014 roadside survey prepared for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, about 24 percent of those who said they’d used marijuana less than two hours before driving said they thought it made them better drivers.

Jon Snyder, a Spokane City Council member who also serves as a member of the Traffic Safety Commission, called those survey results “distressing.”

“There is this perception that marijuana doesn’t impact driving the way alcohol does,” Snyder said. Having different statutes regulating alcohol versus pot use in vehicles reinforces that idea, he said.

But even the Traffic Safety Commission says that marijuana doesn’t seem to increase crash risk to the same level as alcohol.

While several studies indicate marijuana use nearly doubles the risk of a fatal crash, the agency estimates that someone driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 — almost double the legal limit of .08 — or higher is about 25 times more likely to get into a fatal accident.

Shelly Baldwin, a spokeswoman for the Traffic Safety Commission, said that still doesn’t mean people should be allowed to smoke pot or consume edible marijuana products while driving. She said people’s reaction time is impaired when they use marijuana, even if some think it causes them to drive more safely.

“These are things people said about in alcohol back in the 1970s, before we really said, ‘No, you’re killing people,’ ” Baldwin said.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat who has worked on medical marijuana legislation for several years, said the prohibition of marijuana at the federal level has hampered research into the drug’s effects. Kohl-Welles is sponsoring legislation this year to create a marijuana research license, which would allow clinical testing of drugs derived from marijuana.

Kohl-Welles said she thinks there’s some reason to be concerned about people driving while high on marijuana, “but it may be overblown.”

“There needs to be a lot more testing going on,” Kohl-Welles said. “It’s hard to have sufficient science to draw from when the research has not been sanctioned by the federal government.”