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Pot-related Traffic Accidents Increase in Legal States

No tests for stoned drivers

Stoned drivers are a danger to themselves and others.

California State Comptroller Betty Yee has demanded the state’s  cannabis industry “step up” and address pot-related traffic accidents.

Yee cited research from other states that showed an uptick in the number of crashes involving stoned drivers (who tested positive for marijuana). Colorado reported 51 cannabis-involved fatalities in 2016, up from 19 in 2014 and 2015. However, the reports were only made uniform in 2016.

“I want to have the industry step up and be responsible,” she said. “They have an adversarial relationship with law enforcement, so it’s not the easiest conversation to have, but people are getting hurt. So deal with it.”

The controller, a Democrat campaigning for a second term, detailed how she lost consciousness on the afternoon of Friday, July 13, when the state car in which she was riding was rear-ended by a driver allegedly high on marijuana. Yee, her husband and their driver, a California Highway Patrol security officer, were in standstill traffic when their vehicle was hit by a Nissan sedan moving 40-55 mph.

The stoned driver, identified as Aaron George of West Oakland, suffered major injuries, and was booked in Alameda County on a charge of driving while intoxicated and causing an injury, the CHP said.

The controller said one reason she opposed Proposition 64, the 2016 initiative that legalized recreational marijuana, was that the regulatory framework was incomplete and lacked a test to determine whether a user was too stoned to drive.

She said the cannabis industry should work with law enforcement to develop a test for unsafe levels of marijuana for motorists, and wondered whether the hassles of legitimacy were giving the industry second thoughts about legalization: “There might be a move to get this all pushed underground again because they don’t want to deal with it,” she said.

A spokesman for the industry says that’s simply false.

“Our industry wants to be regulated,” said Josh Drayton, communications director at the California Cannabis Industry Association, which represents pot growers and retailers. “There is no desire within the industry to go back underground…The industry wants to be legitimized and regulated across the state, across the country, and around the world.”

The trend in some states toward cannabis legalization has generated national concern about the potential impact of stoned drivers. A study released this year by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that some 44 percent of drivers killed in crashes in 2016 who were tested afterward had drugs in their system, up from 28 percent in 2006.

While California does not have a defined cutoff level for cannabis in a driver’s blood as it does for alcohol, the state does rely on officers to use their observations, perform field sobriety tests and blood tests to prove impairment. The CHP has estimated the Bay Area could see a 70 percent increase in stoned drivers (specifically relating to marijuana) if the current rate of DUI arrests continues through the end of the year.

The highway patrol is working with the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, to evaluate the effects of cannabis on drivers. “The CHP hopes this research, and other ongoing research, will provide additional insights into how cannabis impairs driving,” said agency spokeswoman Fran Clader. There’s no timeframe, however, for finishing that study.

In an interview with CALmatters, Yee said pot growers and retailers “grousing” about taxes and regulation need to accept that the legalization of recreational weed carries social obligations, including a need to do something about the increased risk to public safety.

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