First Traffic Safety Summit Highlights Challenge of Pot-Impaired Driving

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While California irons out the inevitable kinks of legalizing recreational marijuana on New Year’s Day, pot-impaired drivers are presenting law enforcement with a myriad of unique challenges. California Highway Patrol and other agencies, including a Colorado-based prosecutor, gathered at the Alameda County Sherriff’s Department in Dublin on Monday for a first-ever Marijuana Traffic Safety Summit.

The summit aimed to provide crucial insight into the legalization of cannabis in California, as well as its impact on intoxicated driving. The meeting was the first of its kind ever in the Bay Area, intended to discuss the issue of “high” drivers and organized by law enforcement officials, the Department of Justice, and various members of the marijuana industry.

Helena Williams, a California Highway Patrol captain, said, “The takeaway is training and education for law enforcement and judges and the community at large.” According to the California Highway Patrol, since recreational weed became legal on January 1, there has been a 102 percent increase in injuries related to driving under the influence of marijuana.

Arrests for driving impaired have also been rising steadily. For officers of the California Highway Patrol, the reality is a sad one that hits home. “We lost an officer eight months ago to somebody who chose and drive and smoke marijuana,” Williams explained. “We cannot afford to lose anybody else, officer or motorist. If we do not get in front of this problem that driving and smoking is illegal and dangerous, people will die. Our families will be impacted.”

Jennifer Knudsen is a resource prosecutor for traffic safety at the DA’s office in Colorado, a state that legalized weed four years before California did. She attended the summit to give crucial advice based on her own experiences in Colorado. “We talked about the dangers of driving after using marijuana, what officers can look for in their investigations, how to tie that together with any toxicology results and, ultimately, about how to use it in the courtroom,” Knudsen said.

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Marijuana is not alcohol and requires a different approach. Unlike blood alcohol percentage, cannabis has no legal limit indicator in California. Additionally, field sobriety tests are usually inadmissible in court. Dale Geiringer is from California NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a non-profit dedicated to changing weed laws in the country.

“I would like to see development of better performance-based tests,” Geiringer said. “What we do not want to see are chemical tests that put fixed numbers on whether people are impaired, because it is more than a fixed number.” Most people agree these days that there must be more training and public awareness around the issue of driving under the influence of cannabis.

“Our officers are being trained to be drug recognition experts, as well as more aware of people driving under the influence of drugs,” Chief Ernest Sanchez, of California Highway Patrol’s Golden Gate Division, said. “But we are also learning that society believes you can smoke marijuana and drive and be perfectly fine.” For some reason, the falsity that driving stoned is safe continues to permeate society.

The summit attracted around 200 people. The public also had an invitation to attend for some of the talks. Discussions about the issue will continue into the future. A task force is now set up too, and it will meet quarterly. Sacramento will host the next meeting in September. Until then, just remember that it is illegal to have weed in your car, just the way it is against the law to drive with open bottles of booze.

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