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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.

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Marijuana Businesses Could Get Federal Disaster Relief Funds Under New Congressional Bill

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Marijuana businesses impacted by recent natural disasters or that have experienced financial distress due to the coronavirus pandemic would be eligible for federal relief programs under new legislation introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate on Thursday.

Because cannabis remains federally prohibited, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has explicitly denied the industry—and businesses that work indirectly with itaccess to its relief programs like other markets. That means, for example, marijuana farmers in states like California and Oregon that have seen their crops destroyed by wildfires are fully dependent on state and local assistance.

The new Small Business Disaster Relief Equity Act would resolve that problem, stipulating that disaster- or COVID-related services, grants, loans and tax benefits that are made available through federal agencies or congressional legislation cannot be denied to cannabis businesses solely because of the nature of their work, as long as it is in compliance with state law.

What’s more, the bill states that the the heads of federal agencies that administer disaster relief such as SBA “shall, to the greatest extent practicable, allow State-legal cannabis businesses to retroactively apply for such disaster assistance.”

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) filed the companion bills.

“Cannabis businesses in Oregon hurt by the blazing wildfires or any other disaster shouldn’t be shut out from federal relief simply because the federal government is stuck in yesteryear,” Wyden said in a press release. “These legal small businesses employ thousands of workers and support our struggling economy. If they need federal support, they should get it. Full stop.”

SBA recently confirmed to Marijuana Moment that while it opened a disaster relief loan program for Oregon businesses damaged or destroyed by the wildfires, the cannabis industry isn’t eligible. People working in the state-legal market whose primary residences were impacted could still apply, however, but not if they conduct their business from home.

Blumenauer, cochair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said that many marijuana companies in his state “have faced catastrophic disruptions because of wildfires.”

“There’s no reason why these legitimate businesses shouldn’t have access to the federal support meant to help businesses survive unprecedented disasters,” he said. “Our legislation will help ensure these businesses and their workers are not left behind.”

According to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, 20 percent of marijuana businesses in the state were encouraged to evacuate due to the fires. Regulators are also asking cannabis business owners to fill out a survey so they can get a better sense of how extensive the damage is.

As of this week, seven cannabis business have been destroyed by the fires and at least a dozen have been damaged, Oregon Live reported.

“Whether you’re for or against state-legal cannabis, we can all agree that families in all of our communities are struggling to keep the lights on and stay afloat during this turbulent time—and that they need and deserve support,” Merkley said. “That includes thousands of small business owners, workers and their families who rely on state-legal cannabis businesses for their livelihoods.”

“We have to make sure those families won’t be shut out from critical assistance that can make a real difference,” he said.

The timing of the natural disasters in Oregon isn’t ideal, either, as consumer demand for marijuana products has been up amid the pandemic. In July, the state broke its record for cannabis sales, with about $106 million in medical and recreational cannabis purchases. Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis said in a report on Wednesday that “since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast.

Blumenauer in April led a letter with 34 bipartisan members of Congress calling on House leadership to include language in COVID-19 stimulus legislation to allow marijuana businesses to access federal disaster relief. He followed up by filing standalone legislation—the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act—that would address the problem specifically when it comes to coronavirus relief.

Wyden similarly led a letter with nine other senators in April, asking the chamber’s leadership to extend federal assistance to the cannabis market. Civil rights groups and industry stakeholders have also made these calls to action in recent months.

“It’s ridiculous that legal businesses here in Oregon are being denied critical wildfire aid because of outdated policies handed down from Washington, D.C.” DeFazio said. “Cannabis businesses employ thousands across Oregon and are a vital economic engine for our state. This important legislation will ensure that these businesses are eligible for the same aid as every other business impacted by the 2020 wildfires.”

Read text of the marijuana disaster relief bill below: 

Small Business Disaster Relief Equity Act of 2020 Bill Text by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Congressional Research Service Analyzes Marijuana Expungements And Cannabis Immigration Issues

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Congressional Research Service Analyzes Marijuana Expungements And Cannabis Immigration Issues

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The Congressional Research Service (CRS) released new two reports on marijuana policy—one dealing with the immigration implications of federal prohibition and the other looking at expungements provisions in pending legislation to deschedule cannabis.

For the immigration-focused report published last week, CRS outlined how being convicted of a marijuana crime, admitting to using cannabis (even in a legal state) or working in the marijuana industry can carry four “key consequences” for non-citizens. They can be deemed inadmissible to the U.S., deported, lose immigration relief benefits and be denied naturalization.

The threat of inadmissibility for state-legal cannabis activity even extends to people who simply invest in the market, CRS said. The report makes a point of reiterating several times that just because something is legal under state law doesn’t mean there are carve outs in federal immigration statutes.

There are also immigration relief benefits that individuals could lose out on because of marijuana-related activities. They include the “waiver of certain criminal inadmissibility grounds, cancelation of removal, voluntary departure, withholding of removal, protection under the Convention Against Torture, asylum, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA),” the report states.

With respect to naturalization restrictions, CRS points out that the Trump administration in 2019 issued a memo clarifying that having a cannabis conviction or admitting to working in the marijuana industry “can bar an individual from establishing [good moral character], even if the marijuana-related activity did not violate applicable state or foreign laws.”

In May 2019, 43 members of the House asked the heads of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to rescind that policy. The next month, a coalition of 10 senators made the same request.

CRS also recognized in the new report that legislation to federally deschedule marijuana—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—would help resolve the immigration dilemma, as the bill “would prohibit the denial of any immigration benefit or protection to aliens who have participated in any marijuana-related activity.”

The MORE Act was initially expected to be scheduled for a House of Representatives floor vote this week, but following pushback from certain Democratic lawmakers who felt it would look bad to advance the bill before approving additional COVID-19 relief, it was postponed. Now it’s expected to receive a vote later in fall, likely after the election.

In a separate report also released last week, CRS looked specifically at the MORE Act’s expungement provisions.

The bill would mandate that federal district courts expunge the records of individuals with federal marijuana convictions within one year of the bill’s enactment. It would also allow individuals with cannabis-related convictions to petition courts to have their records cleared prior to the one-year review period.

The Capitol Hill research office noted that federal marijuana convictions represent just a small fraction of the country’s total cannabis convictions, with most being carried out at the state, county and local levels. Relatively few federal cases are for possession alone; most are for trafficking-related charges. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, cannabis trafficking convictions are on the decline, with fewer than 2,000 cases occurring last year.

“The expungement provision in the MORE Act could raise several issues for policymakers,” CRS said. “The legislation would only address expungement of criminal records related to federal marijuana offenses; it would not provide relief from convictions for marijuana offenses in state courts.”

But CRS also floated potential solutions such as providing “an incentive for states to adopt uniform laws regarding the expungement of convictions for state level marijuana offenses.”

“For example, Congress may place conditions on federal criminal justice funding, such as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, or provide funds to states to help them implement expungement programs. Congress may consider providing guidelines to states on how to structure their expungement programs,” the report states.

CRS also noted that while the courts could be compelled to expunge records, the bill doesn’t address the fact that certain private companies harvest data on arrests and convictions when they’re publicly available.

“Policymakers might consider whether federal courts should be required to send lists of criminal records that would be expunged under the MORE Act to private background check companies in their respective districts to notify them of the expungement,” the report said.

CRS has dedicated significant time to exploring cannabis policy issues lately. Earlier this month, for example, it released a separate report that identified multiple problems caused by conflicting federal and state marijuana laws.

New FDA Guidance Will Make It Easier To Approve CBD-Based Medicines

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Oregon Marijuana Sales Spike Could Continue As Consumers ‘Permanently Adjust Their Behavior’ Following COVID

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Record-setting Oregon marijuana sales continue to be a bright spot in the state’s coronavirus-slowed economy, state analysts reported this week, but a convergence of unknowns—including the end of federal coronavirus relief and a possible rise in cannabis prices due to devastating wildfires—could still mean a rocky road ahead for consumers.

“Marijuana sales continue to be strong,” Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis wrote in a quarterly revenue forecast published on Wednesday. “Since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast.”

The increase tracks with other more established cannabis markets, such as those in Colorado, Washington and Nevada, which have also seen “strong gains” since the pandemic, the office said. “There are a number of likely reasons for these higher level of sales and expectations are that some of these increases will be permanent.”

oregon marijuana tax revenue forecast

Oregon Office of Economic Analysis

Analysts also expressed a rosier outlook on the future of the state’s marijuana market than they did in last quarter’s report, which acknowledged a spike in sales since the pandemic began but concluded that business was eventually “expected to mellow” as incomes fell and bars reopened. Officials now forecast Oregon will see “somewhat more” in sales than previously projected.

The state has recently seen a string of record-setting months for cannabis sales. Over the summer, monthly cannabis sales had averaged more than $100 million, according to an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) report.

OLCC

The projected uptick in sales will mean an extra $30 million in marijuana tax revenue for the state during its two-year budget period ending in 2021. Total adult-use cannabis taxes for that period are now forecast to end up at more than $276 million.

“Factors leading to increases in sales include higher incomes due to federal support, increased stressors in everyday life, reductions in other forms of entertainment or recreational opportunities, and simply more time on one’s hand be it due to a COVID-related layoff, or increased working from home,” the report said.

“A key question is now that the federal aid is gone and other entertainment options return in the months ahead, will some of this increase in sales in recent months subside?” the Office of Economic Analysis wrote in the new report. “In a recent meeting of our office’s marijuana forecast advisory group, the broad consensus was that yes, some of these sales will come off, but not entirely so. And the longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely customers will permanently adjust their behavior as they become accustomed to their new routines and buying patterns.”

For now, the bulk of the increases appear to be driven by existing consumers. While “indications are that the customer base is broadening some as the market grows due to more users trying an increasingly socially acceptable product and ongoing converts from the black market to the legal market,” the report said, the increase “is more likely to be due to larger or more frequent sales to existing consumers than due to more consumers alone.”

“One item to watch moving forward are prices,” analysts wrote. “In recent years the supply of marijuana has greatly outstripped the demand, leading to lower prices. This is great news for consumers. Given that marijuana is a normal good, lower prices have led to larger quantities sold. But now that demand has increased, while supply has held steady, and with the potential impact of the wildfires right as growers are prepping for harvest, this balance in the market may shift… As such, it may be that prices rise, or at least not decline like they have in recent years.”

oregon marijuana prices and sales

Oregon Office of Economic Analysis

As far as tax revenue goes, any price increase would likely lead to more money for the state, “as the decline in quantity sold is not large enough to outweigh the price impact,” the report said.

How cannabis revenue is spent would also be affected by a drug decriminalization ballot proposition, Measure 110, that voters will decide in November. While the initiative isn’t expected to change the amount of taxes collected, it would redirect marijuana tax funds to expand drug treatment programs. “Whether current programs receiving marijuana tax revenue would ultimately see budgetary impacts,” analysts said, “would remain up to the Legislature should voters approve the measure this fall.”

Measure 110, which broadly seeks to reframe problem drug use in medical rather than criminal terms, is one of two key drug-reform measures on Oregon’s ballot in less than six weeks. The other would legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. That measure would be the first of its kind in the U.S., although Canada has recently granted some patients immunity from that country’s prohibition on psilocybin.

Oregon Marijuana Businesses Impacted By Wildfires Are Ineligible For Federal Relief, Agency Confirms

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