The U.S. government will conduct a study this year examining “marijuana as a causal factor in traffic crashes” under legislation President Obama signed into law last month.
As part of the review, the Department of Transportation will look at methods for detecting marijuana-impaired driving, including ways to differentiate the cause of driving impairment between alcohol and cannabis.
The department is directed to issue a report within one year making recommendations on a possible impairment standard for driving under the influence of marijuana, similar to the 0.08% blood alcohol content limit that is used to legally define intoxication in U.S. states.
The report will also include recommendations on “effective and efficient methods for training law enforcement personnel, including drug recognition experts, to detect or measure the level of impairment of a motor vehicle operator who is under the influence of marijuana by the use of technology or otherwise.”
President-Elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine Chao, a former labor secretary under President George W. Bush, to lead his administration’s Transportation Department. The marijuana views of Chao, who is married to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), are unknown.
The newly-enacted legislation also directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to work with the White House drug czar’s office and other agencies to launch a public awareness campaign on “the dangers of drug-impaired driving, including the dangers of driving while under the influence of heroin or prescription opioids.”
“Marijuana users were about 25 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers with no evidence of marijuana use,” a fact sheet detailing the study’s findings said, but “other factors – such as age and gender – appear to account for the increased crash risk among marijuana users.”
In other words, “marijuana users are more likely to be involved in accidents, but that the increased risk may be due in part because marijuana users are more likely to be in groups at higher risk of crashes,” the NHTSA press release explained. “In particular, marijuana users are more likely to be young men – a group already at high risk.”
A number of U.S. states have already enacted so-called per se laws which treat drivers with a certain percentage of cannabinoids or marijuana metabolites in their blood as intoxicated.
But marijuana policy reform advocates have argued that the standards are arbitrary and unnecessarily criminalize people for their blood content even if they aren’t behaviorally impaired.
“[R]ecently adopted statewide per se limits and zero tolerant per se thresholds in the United States criminally prohibiting the operation of a motor vehicle by persons with the trace presence of cannabinoids or cannabinoid metabolites in their blood or urine are not based upon scientific evidence or consensus,” Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws wrote in a 2013 paper. “[T]he enforcement of these strict liability standards risks inappropriately convicting unimpaired subjects of traffic safety violations, including those persons who are consuming cannabis legally in accordance with other state statutes.”
The new federal provisions mandating additional study on marijuana and driving are part of a $305 billion highway funding bill that President Obama signed on December 4.
The relevant text mandating the study is below:
SEC. 4008. MARIJUANA-IMPAIRED DRIVING. (a) Study.--The Secretary, in consultation with the heads of other Federal agencies as appropriate, shall conduct a study on marijuana- impaired driving. (b) Issues To Be Examined.--In conducting the study, the Secretary shall examine, at a minimum, the following: (1) Methods to detect marijuana-impaired driving, including devices capable of measuring marijuana levels in motor vehicle operators. (2) A review of impairment standard research for driving under the influence of marijuana. (3) Methods to differentiate the cause of a driving impairment between alcohol and marijuana. (4) State-based policies on marijuana-impaired driving. (5) The role and extent of marijuana impairment in motor vehicle accidents. (c) Report.-- (1) In general.--Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary, in cooperation with other Federal agencies as appropriate, shall submit to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a report on the results of the study. (2) Contents.--The report shall include, at a minimum, the following: (A) Findings.--The findings of the Secretary based on the study, including, at a minimum, the following: (i) An assessment of methodologies and technologies for measuring driver impairment resulting from the use of marijuana, including the use of marijuana in combination with alcohol. (ii) A description and assessment of the role of marijuana as a causal factor in traffic crashes and the extent of the problem of marijuana- impaired driving. (iii) A description and assessment of current State laws relating to marijuana-impaired driving. (iv) A determination whether an impairment standard for drivers under the influence of marijuana is feasible and could reduce vehicle accidents and save lives. (B) Recommendations.--The recommendations of the Secretary based on the study, including, at a minimum, the following: (i) Effective and efficient methods for training law enforcement personnel, including drug recognition experts, to detect or measure the level of impairment of a motor vehicle operator who is under the influence of marijuana by the use of technology or otherwise. (ii) If feasible, an impairment standard for driving under the influence of marijuana. (iii) Methodologies for increased data collection regarding the prevalence and effects of marijuana-impaired driving. (d) Marijuana Defined.--In this section, the term ``marijuana'' includes all substances containing tetrahydrocannabinol. SEC. 4009. INCREASING PUBLIC AWARENESS OF THE DANGERS OF DRUG-IMPAIRED DRIVING. (a) Additional Actions.--The Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in consultation with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, State highway safety offices, and other interested parties, as determined by the Administrator, shall identify and carry out additional actions that should be undertaken by the Administration to assist States in their efforts to increase public awareness of the dangers of drug-impaired driving, including the dangers of driving while under the influence of heroin or prescription opioids. (b) Report.--Not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall submit to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives a report that describes the additional actions undertaken by the Administration pursuant to subsection (a).
Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.