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Driving Under the Influence of Cannabis

Aug 08, 2018 04:58PM ● By Leland Rucker
On a recent Monday night, I was high. Really high. Stoned, in fact. I had gotten as high as I possibly could, and was being applauded for it by dozens of people. Those people were cops. Police officers. Cheering me on, and cheering on the three other people who had also gotten high on the behest of the law enforcement officers. Yes, cannabis is legal now, that’s the new normal. Cops clapping because you’re very, very high? Not normal.

How I found myself in such a surreal experience began innocently enough. I had run into Denver attorney Chris Halsor at a panel discussion a few months ago, and he invited me to join one of the Marijuana DUI Investigations classes he’s been teaching since 2014 to help those in law enforcement better determine whether people who have cannabis in their systems are safe to drive.

Detecting impairment in cannabis users is a particularly tough call. With alcohol, we have been able to devise tests that can determine impairment fairly accurately. A person’s blood-alcohol content is related to one’s level of intoxication. With cannabis, it’s different. While there are tests that detect THC levels in urine, blood, and saliva, that level doesn’t correlate to impairment. How high one feels is subjective.

Someone smoking a joint for the first time is going to experience a completely different reaction than a longtime user or medical marijuana patient. As with any drug, users should not drive or operate heavy machinery until they know how a drug is going to affect them. A longtime user knows how a joint affects them. Does that mean they are safe to drive?

There is no roadside test that tells a police officer whether a person they pulled over is high. “If they do a urine sample,” Halsor says, “the only thing we can say is that they had it in their system. That doesn’t tell you whether they were under the influence.”

Data collection about marijuana impairment is getting better now that cannabis use is legal, but it’s still in the early stages. Fatalities with drivers testing positive for THC increased in Colorado from 19 in 2014 to 55 in 2016. That’s a staggering upsurge, but, as with any stats, there are caveats. Before 2016, data collection was incomplete and THC level information unavailable, so the higher number of cases could be the result of improved data collection. The data also include fatalities where alcohol or other drugs might have been involved, which could skew the numbers.

I was eager to help, for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t want impaired drivers on the road creating danger to others, and officers need all the help they can get in that regard. Second, I assume that my blood level would always test at or above the five nanograms per milliliter state threshold at any time, but I have been driving for 40 years without incident. I feel I’m in control when I drive, even after using cannabis, so I wanted to find out how I looked and acted to a police officer who might pull me over.

I learned a lot. All of us were Lyfted to and from Boulder police headquarters for the class, and the four guinea pigs, myself included, met and talked with the 23 students, composed of police officers, park rangers, lawyers, prosecutors, and a couple of state statistical analysts interested in the subject. I was as open and honest as I could be about any question, and it felt good to hear their ideas and reactions, too.

The guinea pigs retired to an RV in the parking lot for a half hour to smoke an array of flower and concentrates while the students discussed what the law says about possession, medical marijuana and driving, and the efficacy of using roadside tests designed to detect alcohol impairment for cannabis. We returned and let the students question us and perform some common roadside tests.

We went back to the parking lot for another 20-minute smoking round (hey, somebody has to do it) and returned a second time to face more roadside tests and conversation. Walking back to the classroom the second time, I said to myself that I was too impaired to drive, and I found out I was right.

Police know that roadside tests can be inconclusive, and few would arrest you just for failing one. In my case, it depended on the test. Several times I was asked to count backwards from 57 to 43, which was easy each time, no matter my state of mind. Another had me stand, put my head back, and bring it forward again after what I thought were 30 seconds. Again, I had no problem. One time an officer had me recite the alphabet “clearly and distinctly.” I was penalized for singing l-m-n-o-p, just as I learned the song when I was in grade school. I never did understand what that was telling them. On the other hand, I couldn’t do the nine-step walk, turnaround and walk back even when sober.

Another thing I found out is that I don’t follow directions, and that’s something they’re watching for. On the Palm Pat test, which gauges hand coordination, I didn’t completely follow the instructions, which the administrator of the test noted after I finished.

I thought I was doing great on the Finger-to-Nose test, which is when the officer tells you to watch her finger without moving your head as she circles and finally almost touches your nose. But while I was admiring how well I did, they were looking for detectable, involuntary movement in my eyes. One prosecutor said she didn’t notice anything after the first time we came back but that she would have been more suspicious after we came back the second time. That certainly gave me pause, even if I knew I was impaired at that point.

Besides learning I might be in more trouble than I thought, the best part of the exercise was discussing this stuff honestly with officers, rangers, and prosecutors. This doesn’t happen when you’re stopped at night along the road. Some police, especially outside the Colorado bubble, consider cannabis users as little more than petty criminals or stupid stoners. Conversely, some cannabis users see police as bad guys trying to hassle them, or worse, put them in jail.

It gave us a chance to see each other as people. Dialogue always trumps monologue, and having the opportunity to share experiences like this can’t help but break down stereotypes on both sides. Officers get to see cannabis users as normal people with jobs and families. And participants like me are able to see officers as more than just someone out to harass them for using cannabis.

I hope we can have more of these kinds of events. The Adams County Sheriff partnered with NORML and Dacorum Strategies on a Saturday in July that allowed volunteers to be administered doses of cannabis or alcohol and then observed driving vehicles in a controlled environment. We need more.

Besides learning I might be in more trouble than I thought, the best part of the exercise was discussing this stuff honestly with officers, rangers, and prosecutors.

I’m sure there were a few students there who were anti-cannabis and might harass some innocent soul sometime in the future. But many people, myself included at times, feel like police are there just to trap you. What I really learned is that, for the most part, police are not out to arrest stoned drivers. The goal is much simpler, if harder to accomplish: Keep impaired drivers off the road. Or as one of them said near the end of the class, “I just want everybody to get home safely.”

I think we are all in agreement on that.