A congressional committee looking at drug-impaired driving repeatedly turned to the question of marijuana legalization and its potential impact on U.S. roadways on Wednesday.
Several witnesses took questions from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on ways to reduce drug-impaired driving, but the experts generally agreed that it’s difficult to identify a direct link between cannabis reform efforts at the state-level and rates of traffic incidents.
What’s more, the kind of technology that enables law enforcement officials to determine the level of intoxication of a driver who consumed alcohol does not currently exist for marijuana. Drug tests can find inactive metabolites of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, but there aren’t any devices that can demonstrate active impairment. Those inactive ingredients can also show up in drug tests for as long as a month for marijuana, compared to just days for other drugs such as cocaine, so their presence does not necessarily indicate that someone is high behind the wheel.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) mentioned that Illinois law enforcement departments are “experimenting with a new swab test” for various drugs, but that for the time being, results of those tests are “unlikely to be admissible in court.”
The experts echoed the congresswoman’s skepticism about the utility of existing drug testing technology such as blood alcohol content (BAC) tests for marijuana. Dr. Robert DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health and a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said that “there is no fixed relationship between blood and impairment for other drugs” besides alcohol.
“Alcohol is the exception—not marijuana—in this, and we’re going to have exactly that problem with every single drug. It cannot be fixed with additional research.”
One simple way to minimize marijuana use behind the wheel would be to impose a zero-tolerance policy for individuals under 21, similar to alcohol, DuPont recommended. But that would lead to widespread criminalization of minors who use marijuana but don’t necessarily drive under the influence, and could even sweep up young people who use medical cannabis.
Colleen Sheehy-Church, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), called for additional research to establish evidence-based drug testing technology but acknowledged that alcohol remains the deadliest and costliest factor in traffic fatalities.
“What we don’t know, however, is the role of [other] drugs as a causal factors in traffic crashes,” she said. “This is why more research is needed.”
Two members of the committee—Reps. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ)—voiced their opposition to recreational marijuana legalization during the hearing. Bucshon, who is also a heart surgeon, said that his experience as a medical professional led him to oppose reform efforts because he worried about the potential health impact on the brains of young users.
Lance said that he was “open to expanding access for medicinal use of marijuana,” but opposes broader legalization.
“I’m especially worried about the legalization of recreational marijuana’s effects on our roadways,” Lance said. “New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation.”
But while the conversation over marijuana legalization and drug-impaired driving during the hearing was largely centered on methods that can be used to mitigate the risk, there was no mention of the growing body of research that contradicts the notion that legalization leads to increased traffic incidents.
For example, a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found “changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization.”
A similar study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that “states that legalized marijuana have not experienced significantly different rates of marijuana- or alcohol-related traffic fatalities relative to [states that haven’t legalized].”
O’Rourke And Cruz Clash On Marijuana And Drugs At Senate Debate
Candidates in one of the most contentious U.S. Senate races in the country this year clashed about the issues of marijuana legalization and drug policy reform during a debate on Friday night.
“I want to end the war on drugs and specifically want to end the prohibition on marijuana,” Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke said in response to an attack on his drug policy record from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, whom he is seeking to unseat in November.
During one of the most heated exchanges of the hour-long debate, the GOP incumbent slammed O’Rourke for sponsoring an amendment as an El Paso city councilman in 2009 that called for a debate on legalizing drugs as a possible solution to violence along the Mexican border.
“I think it would be a profound mistake to legalize all narcotics and I think it would hurt the children of this country,” Cruz argued.
He also criticized a bill the Democrat filed in Congress to repeal a law that reduces highway funding for states that don’t automatically suspend drivers licenses for people convicted of drug offenses. “That’s a real mistake and it’s part of pattern,” he said.
“There’s a consistent pattern when it comes to drug use, that in almost every single instance, Congressman O’Rourke supports more of it.”
Calling the issue “personal to me,” Cruz spoke about his older sister, who died of a drug overdose.
“To be clear, I don’t want to legalize heroin and cocaine and fentanyl,” O’Rourke countered.
“What I do want to ensure is that where, in this country, most states have decided that marijuana will legal at some form—for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes or at a minimum be decriminalized—that we don’t have another veteran in this state, prescribed an opioid because the doctor at the VA would rather prescribe medicinal marijuana but is prohibited by law from doing that,” he said.
It’s time to end the war on drugs. That starts by ending the federal prohibition on marijuana.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) September 21, 2018
Enumerating other potential beneficiaries of cannabis reform, the Democrat also referenced an “older woman with fibromyalgia” and “an African-American man, because more likely than not, that’s who will be arrested for possession of marijuana, to rot behind bars, instead of enjoying his freedom and the opportunity to contribute to the greatness of this country.”
Cruz, who called O’Rourke, “one of the leading advocates in the country for legalizing marijuana,” said that he thinks ending cannabis prohibition “is actually a question on which I think reasonable minds can differ.”
“I’ve always had a libertarian bent myself,” he said. “I think it ought to be up to the states. I think Colorado can decide one way. I think Texas can decide another.”
But despite his support for letting states set their own cannabis laws, which he also voiced during his failed candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Cruz hasn’t cosponsored a single piece of legislation during his time in the Senate that would scale back federal marijuana prohibition.
Ted Cruz accidentally advocating against marijuana legalization, an incredibly popular policy in the country and in Texas…
— Texas College Dems (@CollegeDemsTX) September 21, 2018
Earlier in the debate, the two sparred over the killing this month of Botham Jean, an African-American man shot in his own apartment by a Dallas police officer, a subject about which O’Rourke recently made headlines by calling out in a fiery speech to a black church.
Photo courtesy of NBC News.
Lawmaker Pushes For Marijuana Legalization In Kenya
A Kenyan lawmaker is introducing legislation to legalize marijuana nationwide.
Member of Parliament Kenneth Okoth wrote a letter to the National Assembly speaker on Friday, requesting help to prepare the legislation so that it can be published.
The bill would decriminalize cannabis possession and use, clear criminal records of those with prior cannabis-related convictions, enact a legal and regulated commercial sales program and impose “progressive taxation measures” in order to “boost economic independence of Kenya and promote job creation.”
It's high time Kenya dealt with the question of #marijuana like we do for miraa, tobacco, and alcohol#DecriminalizeIt #LegalizeIt #RegulateIt #TaxIt #HarmReduction #PettyOffences @YoungMPsKenya @HumanRightsMPs @KEWOPA @ICJKenya @lawsocietykenya @shecyclesnbi @DavidNdii @gathara pic.twitter.com/6ISnxjt2gS
— Kenneth Okoth, MP Kibra (@okothkenneth) September 21, 2018
Currently, marijuana (or “bhang,” as it’s locally known) is illegal in Kenya—as it is in most of Africa.
Another provision of the draft legislation concerns “research and policy development.” Okoth wants the country to conduct studies on the medical, industrial, textile and recreational applications of cannabis. And that research would have a “focus on the preservation of intellectual property rights for Kenyan research and natural heritage, knowledge, and our indigenous plant assets,” according to the letter.
Kenya Gazette special issue "..Act of Parliament to decriminalize the growth and use of Marijuana.." pic.twitter.com/gXFNx8ehbC
— The African Voice (@teddyeugene) September 21, 2018
“It’s high time Kenya dealt with the question of marijuana like we do for tobacco, miraa, and alcohol,” Okoth wrote on Facebook.
“Legalize, regulate, tax. Protect children, eliminate drug cartels, reduce cost of keeping petty offenders in jail. Promote research for medical purposes and protect our indigenous knowledge and plants before foreign companies steal and patent it all.”
Okoth’s push for legalization in Kenya comes days after South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that individuals can grow and use marijuana for personal purposes. The court determined that prohibition violated a person’s right to privacy, effectively legalizing cannabis in the country.
It’ll take a while for Okoth’s bill to move forward. The legislation will need cabinet approval, then it must be published so that all interested parties can review the proposal before it enters into parliamentary debates. Whether Okoth’s fellow lawmakers will embrace the legislation is yet to be seen.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Bill, Making History In US Territory
With a governor’s signature on Friday, the latest place to legalize marijuana in the U.S. isn’t a state. It’s the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)—a tiny Pacific territory with a population of just over 50,000.
Under the new law signed by Gov. Ralph Torres (R), adults over 21 years of age will be able to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana, as well as infused products and extracts. Regulators will issue licenses for cannabis producers, testing facilities, processors, retailers, wholesalers and lounges. Home cultivation of a small number of plants will be allowed.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.