A medical marijuana card does not legitimize impaired driving
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Even before Oklahomans approved State Question 788 in June, the state had a serious problem with drugged drivers on the road.
With the passage, Oklahoma law enforcement is now emphasizing that a medical marijuana card does not mean you are allowed to operate a vehicle under the influence of marijuana.
“Currently, Oklahoma has a zero-tolerance law for THC and/or its inactive metabolites in a person’s blood, saliva or urine,” said Paul Harris, director of the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office.
The emergency rules drafted by the Oklahoma State Department of Health say, if a licensed medical marijuana patient is caught driving under the influence, their license could be revoked or suspended.
This is similar to other prescription drugs. While the drug may have been legally obtained, the label still says, “Do not operate heavy machinery or a motor vehicle.”
“To avoid DUI charges, medical marijuana patients should be aware of the rules they are expected to follow when they consider driving after their treatments or use,” Harris said.
It’s not designed to make the life of people with a legitimate prescription more difficult, but to keep Oklahoma’s roads safe.
“Most studies show that using marijuana impairs your mental functioning when it comes to cognitive or thinking ability and short-term tasks,” he added. “It impairs your ability to drive by affecting your coordination, attention, judgment, reaction time and decision-making skills. The impairment is more severe when combined with alcohol.”
Testing for marijuana in the field
“In early 2017, long before SQ 788 passed, the Board of Tests for Alcohol and Drug Influence, along with local law enforcement, set our sights on better ways of testing for impairing substances other than alcohol,” said Kevin Behrens, director of Board of Tests.
The board approved a field sobriety test in 2017 that will detect THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, from an oral fluid sample, Behrens said.
The agency sets the standards for impaired driving testing in the state. His team oversees the training for the drug recognition expert program; all intoxilyzers in the state go to them for certification, and they set the rules for all testing.
“That was not in anticipation of medical or recreational marijuana, it was in response to a drugged driving problem that already existed. Oklahoma already has a raging opioid problem, and a fair number of marijuana impaired drivers,” Behrens said.
Law enforcement had identified the need for better tools in the field to address the problem during routine stops.
“Obviously, it became much more relevant in June 2018,” he added.
The test works with a saliva sample.
“It is very much like a home pregnancy test,” Behrens said.
This test detects the presence of other drugs ranging from street drugs such as heroin, meth or cocaine to potent legally prescribed drugs. It is a screening test that will confirm the presence of the drug but not the amount, he said.
To determine the amount of THC in a person's system, a blood test is required.
While there is a threshold amount for alcohol, there is no such thing for drugs – legal or illegal.
With alcohol, a person 21 or older who registers a blood alcohol content of .08 or above is presumed to be impaired, .05-.07 is considered driving while impaired (DWI), but Oklahoma has no similar standard for THC.
“People want to see a number,” Behrens said. “For a variety of reasons, we cannot reliably say a specific level of drug in a person’s blood is impairing.”
Drugs don't metabolize as predictably as alcohol and the correlation between the amount of drug in the bloodstream and level of impairment is not as consistent as it is for alcohol, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if you are taking your prescription drugs off label or exactly in accordance with the instructions. If a driver is impaired by these medications, they are breaking the law; they are creating a danger to public safety and are subject to arrest and prosecution.”
“Just because a doctor prescribed it, it doesn’t mean it is safe to drive,” Behrens said.
When the field test was approved, law enforcement across the state also received additional training to observe and detect drug-related driving behaviors.
Behrens said officers start their observation when they see the car. From there, they may pull a driver over and observe their appearance and demeanor, any visible signs that may indicate impairment, as well as smells and other telltale signs.
Oklahoma’s drugged driving problem
Oklahoma’s law enforcement had already been concerned with drugged driving prior to State Question 788. While drunk driving statistics have been improving, drugged driving has increased on Oklahoma roads.
In 2017, 179 people died in drug-related crashes, and a total of 2,669 injuries were associated with drug-related crashes. This number has been steadily increasing over the last five years.
“While we have made progress in combating drunk driving in recent decades, drug use by drivers continues to rise. In fact, in 2015 (the most recent national data available) drugs were present in 43 percent of the fatally-injured drivers with known test results, appearing more frequently than alcohol,” Harris said.
In Oklahoma specifically, the most common controlled substance, besides alcohol, that OSBI has found in Oklahoma drivers’ blood in 2016 was marijuana. Other frequently found substances include methamphetamine and the prescription drug alprazolam, used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Alprazolam is available under the trade name Xanax.
Good citizens making bad decisions
There are obviously drivers who drive under the influence of illegal drugs, but law enforcement also encounters plenty of good citizens who are under the influence of legally obtained prescription medication.
“Drugged driving can be caused by legal prescription drugs, over-the counter medications and illegal drugs. Whether by drugs – legal or illegal, alcohol, or a combination of both drugs and alcohol – impaired driving puts the driver, their passengers and others on the road at risk,” Harris said.
“It is a decision that is made by the driver which, unfortunately, may lead to someone being seriously injured or killed,” he added.
The behavioral effects of prescription medication and illegal drugs vary widely, depending not just on the drug but also on the person taking it. Some medications, like anti-anxiety drugs, can dull alertness and slow reaction times; others, like stimulants, can encourage risk-taking and affect the ability to judge distances. Illegal drugs, depending on what the drugs are, have a wide variety of symptoms ranging from simple slowed reaction times to hallucinations.
Why law enforcement is concerned
Oklahoma became the 30th state to legalize medical marijuana in June. Ever since other states began legalizing medical or recreational marijuana, law enforcement, insurance companies and researchers have looked at potential effects of these laws on traffic safety.
One of the first studies, conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, analyzed insurance claims for vehicle collisions filed between January 2012 and October 2016. The researchers compared claims in states that had recently legalized marijuana (Colorado, Washington and Oregon) with claims in similar neighboring states that hadn't.
They found that over that period, collision claim frequencies in the states that had legalized marijuana were about 3 percent higher than would have been anticipated without legalization. The researchers characterized that number as small, but significant.
Meanwhile, a second study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found no increase in vehicle crash fatalities in Colorado and Washington after legalization.
Harris said in speaking to agencies in other states, he does believe there is an increase significant enough to be concerned about.
“Looking at the data from other states with legalized and medical marijuana, we can see that there is an increase in crashes and fatalities,” Harris said.
He said the studies that suggest that crashes and injuries have decreased or remained unchanged in these states did not take into consideration that, during the same time frame, the overall number of crashes and fatalities decreased nationwide, suggesting that it was an overall downward trend not specifically related to a specific cause.
Harris also added that officers across the state see the impact legal and illegal drugs have and the carnage some of these crashes have produced.
“Our mission is to make the roads safe for everyone, including Oklahomans who are prescribed medical marijuana,” he said.
It takes the entire community to end the problem – from reporting people’s erratic driving to approaching a friend who may have a problem, to looking out for older people who may mix up their drugs. Driving under the influence of drugs – legal or illegal – must become unacceptable, Harris said.
“The Oklahoma Highway Safety Office wants to make sure everyone on the roads gets home safe,” he added. “When people are driving under the influence of any substance, including marijuana, it can lead to them causing a crash and injuring or killing themselves or innocent people.”
For more information, visit ohso.ok.gov.
Michaela Marx Wheatley is an award-winning writer and journalist who has written for newspapers and magazines in both the U.S. and Germany. These days she is a copywriter at BigWing Interactive and the editor of BrandInsight, The Oklahoman’s and... Read more ›
The Oklahoma Highway Safety Office (OHSO) was established in 1967 by the Oklahoma Legislature, as a direct result of the National Highway Safety Act of 1966, to combat an alarming increase in the number and severity of traffic crashes and fatalities. The OHSO is under the umbrella of the Department of Public Safety. The OHSO works closely with local governmental organizations, state agencies, law enforcement agencies, and others to develop State Highway Safety Plan (pdf) and programs to address highway safety issues. The programs are Federally funded through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Most programs and activities fall into the areas of traffic safety education, training, and enforcement enhancement. Read more ›