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Congressional Report Raises Questions About Whether Marijuana Impairs Driving

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Concerns expressed by lawmakers that marijuana legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded, a congressional research body said in a recent report. In fact, the experts tasked by the House and Senate with looking into the issue found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.

While law enforcement has well-established tools to identify impaired driving from alcohol, developing technology to do the same for cannabis has proved difficult. Not only is the technology lacking, but questions remain as to how THC affects driving skills in the first place and what levels of THC should be considered safe.

“Although laboratory studies have shown that marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance, studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage,” the Congressional Research Service (CRS) wrote.

What’s more, “studies have been unable to consistently correlate levels of marijuana consumption, or THC in a person’s body, and levels of impairment.”

Both advocates and opponents of marijuana reform strongly support finding a resolution to the impaired driving detection issue. But experts aren’t so confident that researchers will be able to develop something akin to an alcohol breathalyzer, as the most promising attempts have only been able to determine whether a person has smoked within recent hours.

What’s striking about the report from Congress’s official research arm is that it repeatedly states it’s not clear that cannabis consumption is associated with an increased risk of traffic accidents. In general, the issue has been treated as something of a given in congressional hearings, with some lawmakers arguing that loosening federal cannabis laws would lead to a spike in traffic deaths.

That argument was echoed in a separate House Appropriations Committee report that was released on Monday. A section of the document described ongoing concerns about drugged driving “due to the increase in States legalizing marijuana use” and designated funds to help law enforcement identify impaired driving from cannabis.

The CRS report, which was published last month, signals that the problem isn’t quite as cut and dry as lawmakers might think.

Researchers have found on several occasions that traffic fatalities do not increase after a state legalizes marijuana.

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that both opponents and supporters of legalization generally caution against driving under the influence.

“Cannabis inhalation in a dose-response manner may influence certain aspects of psychomotor performance, particularly in those who are more naive to its effect,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “But this influence is typically short-lived and is far less acute than the psychomotor effects associate with alcohol.”

“By contrast, THC’s unique absorption profile and prolonged detection window in blood makes it so that—unlike as is the case with alcohol—the detection of THC in blood is not necessarily indicative of either recency of use or behavioral impairment,” he said.

The congressional report discusses the limitations of technology in detecting active impairment from cannabis and details previous studies on traffic trends in states that have reformed their cannabis laws. It also lays out legislative options for Congress to “aid policymaking around the issue of marijuana and impairment.”

As it stands, states have generally enforced impaired driving laws through one of two processes. Some states “require that the state prove that a driver’s impairment was caused by the substance or behavior at issue” while others have per se laws asserting that “a driver is automatically guilty of driving while impaired if specified levels of a potentially impairing substance are found in his or her body.”

But it’s significantly easier to prove impairment for alcohol however you cut it, the report explains.

“Detecting impairment due to use of marijuana is more difficult. The body metabolizes marijuana differently from alcohol,” the authors wrote. “The level of THC (the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana) in the body drops quickly within an hour after usage, yet traces of THC (nonpsychoactive metabolites) can still be found in the body weeks after usage of marijuana.”

Further there is “as yet no scientifically demonstrated correlation between levels of THC and degrees of impairment of driver performance, and epidemiological studies disagree as to whether marijuana use by a driver results in increased crash risk.”

Detecting impairment from cannabis is additionally complicated by another extraneous circumstance: variation in THC potency. The THC concentration conundrum is exacerbated by the fact that the only source of federal, research-grade cannabis “is considered by some researchers to be low quality,” the report stated, referring to studies showing that the government’s marijuana supply does not chemically reflect what’s available in state-legal commercial markets.

CRS also looked at the “inconsistent” results of studies examining the effects of cannabis use on traffic incidents. While some have indicated that consumption poses an increased risk on the road, the report argues that some may be conflating correlation and causation.

“Relatively few epidemiological studies of marijuana usage and crash risk have been conducted, and the few that have been conducted have generally found low or no increased risk of crashes from marijuana use,” CRS wrote.

After going through several other related issues, CRS laid out a couple of choices for Congress when it comes to dealing with the impaired driving issue. Those options include “continued research into whether a quantitative standard can be established that correlates the level of THC in a person’s body and the level of impairment” and compiling “better data on the prevalence of marijuana use by drivers, especially among drivers involved in crashes and drivers arrested for impaired driving.”

One of the last elements the report specifically focused on was federally mandated drug testing for individuals in “safety sensitive” jobs in the transportation sector. Interestingly, CRS seemed to suggest that, given the issues they outlined with respect to difficulties identifying active impairment from THC, the government should reevaluate whether suspensions for testing positive should be permanent.

“CRS could not identify any data on how many safety-sensitive transportation employees have lost their jobs as a result of positive tests for marijuana use,” the report states. “Considering the length of time that marijuana is detectable in the body after usage, and the uncertainty about the impairing effect of marijuana on driving performance, Congress and other federal policymakers may elect to reexamine the rationale for testing all safety-sensitive transportation workers for marijuana usage.”

“Alternatively, Congress and federal policymakers may opt to maintain the status quo until more research results become available,” the report advised.

Armentano, of NORML, said that legislators should be way of enacting policies focused on levels of THC or metabolites in drivers.

“As more states consider amending their cannabis consumption laws, lawmakers would best served to avoid amending traffic safety laws in a manner that relies solely on the presence of THC or its metabolites as determinants of driving impairment,” he said. “Otherwise, the imposition of traffic safety laws may inadvertently become a criminal mechanism for law enforcement and prosecutors to punish those who have engage in legally protected behavior and who have not posed any actionable traffic safety threat.”

Marijuana Legalization Not Linked To Increased Traffic Deaths, Study Finds

 

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Culture

Lawmakers Mourn Loss Of Charlotte Figi, Whose Story Inspired National CBD Movement And Helped Change Policies

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Advocates and lawmakers are mourning the loss of a young icon in the medical marijuana reform movement. Charlotte Figi, who showed the world how CBD can treat severe epilepsy, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 13 due to complications from a likely coronavirus infection.

Across social media, people are sending their support to the Figi family and sharing anecdotes about how Charlotte’s battle against Dravet syndrome—and the success she demonstrated in treating it with the cannabis compound—changed hearts and minds. Her impact has been felt across state legislatures and in Congress, where her story was often told as a clear example of why laws prohibiting access to cannabidiol needed to change.

The domino effect Charlotte’s story helped set off—with states, particularly conservative ones, passing modest reform bills for CBD access—paved the path for a successful congressional rider that ended up protecting more far-reaching medical cannabis programs across the U.S., advocates say.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who has become one of the leading GOP champions for broad marijuana reform on Capitol Hill, said he was personally influenced by Charlotte and, as a state lawmaker in 2014, her story motivated him to support legislation to reform Florida’s medical cannabis policies.

“Charlotte lived a life of tremendous significance. Her story inspired me to completely change my views on medical cannabis and successfully pass legislation so that patients could get help in Florida,” the congressman said. “I’m so sad she is gone, but the movement she has ignited will live forever.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), another top marijuana reform advocate who has raised the issue directly with President Trump on several occasions, wrote that Charlotte “made a positive and everlasting change in the world by the age of 13, and her inspirational courage will always be remembered.”

“Charlotte changed the way the nation thinks about CBD through her grace and advocacy,” he said. “We should honor her by fixing our federal cannabis laws as soon as possible.”

Florida state Rep. Rob Bradley (R) agreed with the sentiment, writing that “Charlotte Figi was a bright, beautiful light that changed how our state and country views cannabis. I am saddened to hear that this sweet soul has left us.”

In Illinois, state Rep. Bob Morgan (D) said Charlotte, who is the namesake of one of the most well-known CBD brands, Charlotte’s Web, “singlehandedly transformed how the world viewed medical cannabis and children with epilepsy.”

“She suffered so much so that others would not have to,” he said. “May her memory be a blessing.”

Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach (D) also said Charlotte “inspired me to get involved in the cannabis movement” and “showed the world that Cannabis is medicine and the trail she blazed has helped millions.”

“The world lost a fighter,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who previously advocated for CBD reform as a state senator, said. “Charlotte Figi-who helped inspire passage of CBD Oil legislation for epilepsy treatment nationwide-passed away. I worked w/her mom/others in 14 in MO. My speech in the Senate was a tribute to her, June Jesse, my son & many others.”

Beyond championing a successful CBD bill in Florida, Charlotte’s family also captivated national audiences and became a household name in the reform movement. Her story was featured on a popular CNN documentary, “Weed,” hosted by Sanjay Gupta, that introduced people from diverging political ideologies to an issue that’s since become a focus of legislation across the country.

A bipartisan congressional bill named after her—the Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act—was first introduced in 2015.

But while that standalone legislation didn’t advance, the growing number of state-level policy changes that were inspired by Charlotte and other young patients could help to explain why Congress, including members who oppose legalization, has consistently supported a budget rider that prohibits the Justice Department from interfering in state-legal medical cannabis programs. It was first approved in 2014—after repeatedly failing on the House floor—and has been renewed each year since.

With CBD-only states included on an enumerated list of those that would be protected from legal action, it became increasingly difficult for lawmakers to defend voting against a measure to prevent federal harassment of their own constituents. Support from more conservative-minded Democrats and a handful of Republicans, including those from states that had recently enacted or were debating their own CBD laws, allowed the amendment to narrowly advance for the first time when it had been handily defeated two years earlier.

Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and South Carolina stand out as examples of states where cannabis reform came online between those votes and where support for the measure also increased among their congressional delegations.

The measure as approved by Congress and first signed into law law President Obama, has given explicit protection from federal prosecution not just to people complying with limited CBD-focused state laws but also medical cannabis growers, processors and retailers in states with more robust policies such as California and Colorado (though it does not protect recreational marijuana businesses or consumers).

“Charlotte Figi personalized this issue in a way that few others have, and her story humanized the medical cannabis fight to such a degree that many politicians could no longer ignore it,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “There is little doubt that Charlotte’s story, arguably more than any other, paved the way for politicians in several southern and midwestern states to finally move forward to recognize the need for CBD, and in some cases, whole-plant cannabis access.”

Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said even opponents of cannabis legalization “can’t say ‘no’ to young mothers pushing sick kids in strollers,” referencing the many other patient advocates who helped usher the reform to victory.

“There’s no doubt it helped move the debate in our direction,” he said. “Truth is, I was once told that CBD hurt our effort [for broader reform]. I don’t think so.”

A person writing on behalf of the family on Tuesday said that “Charlotte is no longer suffering” and will be forever seizure-free.

CBD Prescription Drug Is No Longer A Federally Controlled Substance, DEA Says

Image element courtesy of Paige Figi.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Politics

FBI Policy On CBD Use By Agents Is ‘Under Review’

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is apparently looking into changing internal policy when it comes to the use of CBD products by its agents and other employees, the agency said on Tuesday.

While workers are prohibited from using marijuana—and applicants can be disqualified for consuming cannabis within the past three years—it seems FBI is open to loosening rules for the non-intoxicating cannabis compound, which has become more widely available since hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, creating a massive market for its derivatives.

During a Q&A on Twitter, FBI’s Newark office was asked two marijuana-related questions. One person wanted to know why the agency says “you cannot use marijuana within 3 years of applying, even with a medical card/prescription.”

“The policy regarding CBD oil is currently under review,” FBI replied. “Check the other eligibility requirements.”

The overall thread was about questions people had about the process of becoming a special agent, so it’s not clear if the CBD policy is being reevaluated for applicants only regarding past use, or if any change would cover active agents as well. Marijuana Moment reached out to FBI and its Newark division for clarification, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.

Another person asked whether the three-year cannabis abstinence requirement applies to positions other than special agents and FBI said: “Yes, that policy applies to all positions within the FBI.”

The simple fact that FBI fielded multiple marijuana questions while promoting recruitment seems to speak to a point that the agency’s former director, James Comey, made in 2014. He suggested that he wanted to loosen the agency’s employment policies as it concerns marijuana, as potential skilled workers were being passed over due to the requirement.

“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” he said at the time.

Last year, FBI said it wanted the public to send tips on illicit activity in state-legal marijuana markets, stating that restrictive licensing policies could open the door to corruption.

While FBI’s CBD policy is in review, other federal agencies—particularly for within the military—have strongly discouraged or outright banned its use.

The Department of Defense made clear that CBD is off limits for service members.

The Air Force issued a notice last year stipulating that its members are prohibited from using the compound.

The Navy told its ranks that they’re barred from using CBD regardless of its legal status.

And the Coast Guard said last year that sailors can’t use marijuana or visit state-legal dispensaries.

Meanwhile, NASA said that CBD products could contain unauthorized THC concentrations that could jeopardize jobs if employees fail a drug test.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued guidance to federal agency drug program coordinators last year, expressing concern about excess THC in CBD products, which seems to have prompted the various departments to clarify their rules.

The Department of Transportation took a different approach in February, stating in a notice that it would not be testing drivers for CBD.

While much of the CBD found in markets across the U.S. is largely unregulated, as the Food and Drug Administration is in the process of developing rules for the compound, a CBD-based prescription medication for epilepsy was entirely removed from the Controlled Substances Act this week, which should lead to easier access for patients.

People Could Still Be Denied These Jobs Over Marijuana Use Under New York City Drug Testing Exemptions

Photo by Kimzy Nanney.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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People Could Still Be Denied These Jobs Over Marijuana Use Under New York City Drug Testing Exemptions

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New York State might not be legalizing marijuana this year, in large part due to complications from the coronavirus outbreak, but at least many of those still in the workforce in New York City won’t risk being denied jobs over a positive THC test thanks to a local law that goes into effect next month. And now a city commission is proposing regulations on who exactly will be protected from pre-employment cannabis testing.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights proposed a rule, which was published in The City Record on Tuesday, that

When the City Council first approved the legislation—which was enacted without Mayor Bill de Blasio’s (D) signature last year—it included language carving out exceptions from the prohibition on testing for those applying to certain jobs such as police officers and people charged with supervising or caring for children, as well as positions “tied to a federal or state contract or grant.”

The law, which goes into effect starting May 10, also exempts jobs with “the potential to significantly impact the health or safety of employees or members of the public.”

To that end, these new proposed regulations from the commission seek to explain exactly what constitutes such a position.

Here’s who would still be subject to pre-employment drug testing under the proposal:

1) People in jobs that require them to regularly be on active construction sites,

2) those who regularly operate heavy machinery,

3) those who regularly work with power or gas utility lines,

4) those who use a motor vehicle on approximately a daily basis and

5) those for whom impairment “would interfere with the employee’s ability to take adequate care in the carrying out of his or her job duties and would pose an immediate risk of death or serious physical harm to the employee or to other people.”

“These broad, vague exceptions—which include anyone who drives daily—make no more sense than requiring anyone who ever drives a car to permanently abstain from alcohol,” Karen O’Keef, state policies director with the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Cannabis stays in one’s system for over a month, so a positive test has nothing to do with if a person is impaired at work. The only exception that should apply is when federal law or contracts require pre-employment drug screening.”

The commission also clarified in the proposed rule that “a ‘significant impact on health and safety’ does not include concerns that a positive test for tetrahydrocannabinols or marijuana indicates a lack of trustworthiness or lack of moral character.”

A public comment period is now open for people to weigh in. Feedback will be accepted until April 16, the day the commission is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue.

In addition to passing the pre-employment cannabis testing ban last year, the City Council also approved resolutions to make it so simple cannabis possession alone doesn’t warrant the removal of a child from a guardian and to require the New York Department of Health to create hospital drug testing regulations for pregnant women or those giving birth, “including informing patients of their rights before any discussion of drug use or drug testing.”

Advocates have celebrated the modest reform victories, but the sting of a defeat on statewide legalization is still fresh. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legal cannabis in his budget proposal earlier this year and repeatedly insisted that the policy change be pursued through that vehicle, he said over the weekend that the prospect is “effectively over” for 2020.

Lawmakers in favor of legalization had signaled that might be the case as the state grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing them to shift legislative priorities. That said, there is a revised legalization bill that was recently introduced which could theoretically be taken up later this year if lawmakers opt to reconvene.

Businesses That ‘Indirectly’ Work With Marijuana Industry Ineligible For Federal Coronavirus Loans

This story was updated to include comment from MPP.

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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