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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 Legalization Could Curb Opioid Crisis In West Virginia, Governor Says

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If West Virginia lawmakers send a bill to legalize marijuana to his desk, he will sign it, Gov. Jim Justice (R) said on Tuesday.

While he might not be personally in favor of adult-use legalization, he said in response to a question during a town hall event that he’s heard from members of the medical community who feel that regulating cannabis sales could actually reduce “drug-type problems” like the opioid overdose epidemic, which has hit his state especially hard.

“I’ll just tell it like it is, I’m not educated enough to make a really good assessment as of yet,” he said. “But I can tell you just this: I do believe that that is coming, and the wave is coming across all of our states, and as that wave comes, if our House Republicans and Democrats and Senate Republicans and Democrats would get behind that effort from a standpoint of legalization of recreational marijuana and they would be supportive of that, I would too.”

Watch the governor respond to the marijuana legalization question below: 

The governor’s point about the broad public health impacts of legalization is substantiated in a growing body of scientific literature that’s found that increasing legal access to cannabis—which has been shown to effectively treat conditions such as chronic pain with minimal side effects—leads to fewer opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths.

Tuesday’s town hall wasn’t specifically about marijuana, however; rather, it centered on the state’s push to eliminate the income tax. On that note, House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa (R) recently circulated an internal poll among Republican lawmakers, inquiring about what kind of policies—including marijuana legalization—they’d be willing to support to make up revenue for the state as part of the plan to gut the income tax.

When asked about legalization as a means to raise tax revenue that could theoretically be used to get ride of the income tax, Justice said he’s principally opposed to broad reform but “I’m weakening on that position” because while his instinct is to reject regulating marijuana amid the state’s drug crisis, the medical community has shifted his perspective.

Experts “tell me that really and truly the legalizing of marijuana in certain areas or certain states that have that, from a recreational standpoint, have lowered their drug-type problems,” he said.

“If we could bucket the proceeds [from cannabis tax revenue] and use them in a way, just like this personal income tax reduction…in a really beneficial way for all our people,” he would be supportive of that.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

West Virginia approved medical cannabis legalization in 2017, which Justice signed into law, and patients were just recently approved to start registering for the program. That said, the state must still partner with a testing laboratory before marijuana products are made available.

Two Democratic candidates who lost their bids for West Virginia House seats last year had pledged to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana in the state if they were elected.

Chuck Schumer Says Federal Marijuana Legalization Is A Priority In Democrats’ ‘Big, Bold Agenda’

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Mississippi House Replaces Senate’s Alternate Medical Marijuana Program With What Voters Originally Approved

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“The people have spoken, with a constitutional amendment about medical marijuana, and that bill went against the spirit of what the people decided.”

By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today

A House panel on Tuesday gutted a Senate medical marijuana proposal and inserted the medical marijuana language voters passed as a constitutional amendment in November.

“I’m interested in seeing that bill die—I think it just did die,” said Rep. Robert Johnson III, House minority leader. “The people have spoken, with a constitutional amendment about medical marijuana, and that bill went against the spirit of what the people decided.”

Johnson made those statements about Senate Bill 2765 on Tuesday afternoon, when it appeared the bill had died, with no Ways and Means Committee meeting called on the floor for the afternoon to take the bill up. Later, Ways and Means had a meeting and took the bill up, then struck the Senate language and inserted Initiative 65. It now goes to the full House and if passed, back to the Senate in its amended form.

Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, who helped lead, and fund, the successful citizen initiative to enshrine medical marijuana use in the state constitution, offered the amendment to replace the Senate bill language with Initiative 65’s language.

Senate Bill 2765 was originally a legislative alternative to the medical marijuana program voters overwhelmingly approved in November with Ballot Initiative 65, which is now being challenged in the state Supreme Court. The bill passed the Senate only after much wrangling and a “do-over” vote in the wee hours of the morning in mid-February. It was initially drafted to create its own medical marijuana program, regardless of whether the court upholds the voter-passed program. But it was amended during heated Senate debate to take effect only if the courts strike down the voter-passed program.

The legislative move had many Initiative 65 supporters crying foul, claiming the Legislature was trying to usurp the will of the voters. After lawmakers failed for years to approve use of medical marijuana despite a groundswell of public support, voters took matters in hand in November with Initiative 65.

Jessica Rice, director of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association was among many watching the legislative alternative marijuana bill with skepticism and trepidation. She questioned whether lawmakers were truly trying to provide a backstop in case courts strike down Initiative 65. If so, she said, they would codify Initiative 65 — as the House panel did — not come up with a proposal with higher taxes and more or different regulations as in the Senate version.

“Our position is that the people have already had an option to vote on a legislative created program, and they chose not to,” Rice said last week. “Just because this is up before the Supreme Court does not give the Legislature a second bite at the apple … I think this is about control — they want to be able to be in control of the program, but people have already rejected that.”

But many state leaders and lawmakers had lamented that Initiative 65 was drafted to favor the marijuana industry and is just short of legalized recreational use. It puts the Mississippi State Department of Health in charge of the program, with no oversight by elected officials. It also prevents standard taxation of the marijuana, and any fees collected by the health department can only be used to run and expand the marijuana program, not go into state taxpayer coffers. The measure allows little regulation by local governments, no limits on the number of dispensaries and otherwise leaves many specifics … unspecified.

The Senate proposal would have taxed medical marijuana, with a 4 percent excise at cultivation, and with a 7 percent sales tax patients would pay, which was originally 10 percent in earlier drafts of the bill. Most of the taxes collected would have gone to education, including early learning and college scholarships. And the Departments of Agriculture and Revenue would be in charge.

The bill also would have imposed large licensing fees on growers and dispensary shop owners. Originally, those fees would have been $100,000 for growers and $20,000 for dispensaries. Those were reduced to $15,000 and $5,000, respectively, on Thursday night. Other changes were made in an effort to assuage those who believed such fees would keep small businesses and farms out of the game.

The bill barely gained the three-fifths vote it needed to pass the Senate. It faced a Tuesday deadline for the Ways and Means Committee to pass it on to the full House. Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar had said late Tuesday he was still undecided on what to do with the bill.

He noted the Ways and Means meeting late Tuesday was not announced on the House floor, as is standard procedure.

“No, it wasn’t announced,” Lamar said. “We just added it to the schedule. I know that’s not the usual way we do it, but I wasn’t there to announce it on the floor.”

This left many believing the bill had died on deadline without a vote Tuesday—apparently, including House Speaker Philip Gunn.

Gunn said: “The issue, or the challenge here is that the people voted on it in November, and they spoke pretty strongly… I know there is a lawsuit, but that can be dealt with later if we need to. If the Supreme Court throws out that vote, then the Legislature can come back and deal with it. If they uphold it, well then I don’t know what the Legislature would have to do with it then.”

This story was first published by Mississippi Today.

Biden AG Pick Restates Pledge To Respect State Marijuana Laws, In Writing

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Mexican Lawmakers To Vote On Marijuana Legalization Next Week

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A long-awaited floor vote on a proposal to legalize marijuana in Mexico is being scheduled in the Chamber of Deputies for next week, a move that comes months after the Senate approved the reform.

That said, lawmakers say there is still no formal revised bill for deputies to take up, and it will have to move through the committee process before being potentially returned to the Senate.

Martha Tagle MartĂ­nez, a member of the chamber’s Health Committee, said on Tuesday that several groups have reached out to her after receiving what appeared to be a draft legislation to regulate cannabis. She clarified that “there is still no formal or definitive document.”

The Political Coordination Board, which is established by party leaders to reach consensus on legislative issues, has set floor action for March 9. “But there is still no draft opinion,” MartĂ­nez said. When there is a bill, it will go to the Health and Justice Committees.

Those panels will “analyze, discuss, modify and approve the draft opinion” before sending it to the floor.

While it remains to be seen what changes will be made from the Senate version, MartĂ­nez said that the current bill as approved in the other chamber does not fulfill the requirements of the Supreme Court, which deemed the prohibition on personal possession and cultivation of marijuana unconstitutional in a 2018 ruling. Lawmakers have since been tasked with ending criminalization, but they’ve repeatedly pushed back deadlines to enact the policy change.

Now the legislature has until the end of April to legalize cannabis nationwide, and it seems next week’s action will set the stage for Congress to make good on its obligation.

In the meantime, the Health Committee already held a preliminary discussion on the issue last month.

Members of the panel said they wanted to hold four sessions to debate the legislation, but its president, Carmen Medel Palma, has yet to convene them and wants to speed up the process, La Jornada reported.

The Justice Committee also met to discuss the matter on Sunday, according to the group Cáñamo México.

The two panels were initially expected to send a revised legalization proposal to the floor last month, but that didn’t happen.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, for his part, said in December that a vote on legalization legislation was delayed due to minor “mistakes” in the proposal.

He said “there was no time to conduct a review” in the legislature before the prior December 15 Supreme Court deadline, but he noted that issues that need to be resolved are “matters of form” and “not of substance.”

The Senate passed the legalization bill in November and transmitted it to the Chamber of Deputies. Several committees took up the bill, with the Human Rights and Budget and Public Account Committees representing one panel that considered and advanced it just before the the court granted lawmakers’ latest deadline extension request.

While advocates are eager for lawmakers to formally end prohibition, they hoped the delay would give them more time to try to convince the legislature to address their concerns about certain provisions of the current bill, namely the limited nature of its social equity components and strict penalties for violating rules.

In response to unofficial drafts of the legalization measure that were obtained by advocacy groups, RegulaciĂłn Por La Paz said the proposals “give way to a regulation designed as a way for the great national and international capital, at the cost of the criminalization of users” and that the draft legislation “prioritizes the interests of the industry over rights and needs of the Mexican citizenship.”

“The worst they propose [is] a registry for self cultivators,” Mariana Sevilla of RegulaciĂłn Por La Paz told Marijuana Moment, adding that she also concerned about the inclusion of vertical integration for cannabis businesses.

Activists also want to increase the percentage of licenses granted to people harmed by prohibition.

“To avoid the formation of corporate oligopolies and promote a horizontal and inclusive market that encourages dignified participation and fair conditions for communities in vulnerable situations, it is essential to incorporate a perspective of social justice,” Zara Snapp of the Instituto RIA and #RegulacionPorLaPaz wrote in an op-ed coauthored by ReverdeSer Colectivo Coordinator Amaya Ordorika Imaz.

The legalization bill cleared a joint group of Senate committees prior to the full floor vote in that chamber, with some amendments being made after members informally considered and debated the proposal during a virtual hearing.

Members of the Senate’s Justice, Health, and Legislative Studies Committees had approved a prior version of legal cannabis legislation last March, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed consideration of the issue.

In general, the Senate bill would establish a regulated cannabis market, allowing adults 18 and older to purchase and possess up to 28 grams of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

The legislation makes some attempts to mitigate the influence of large marijuana corporations. For example, it states that for the first five years after implementation, at least 40 percent of cannabis business licenses must be granted to those from indigenous, low-income or historically marginalized communities.

The Mexican Institute of Cannabis would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing licenses.

Public consumption of marijuana would be allowed, except in places where tobacco use is prohibited or at mass gatherings where people under 18 could be exposed.

Households where more than one adult lives would be limited to cultivating a maximum of eight plants. The legislation also says people “should not” consume cannabis in homes where there are underaged individuals. Possession of more than 28 grams but fewer than 200 grams would be considered an infraction punishable by a fine but no jail time.

Sen. Julio Ramón Menchaca Salazar of the MORENA party said in April that legalizing cannabis could fill treasury coffers at a time when the economy is recovering from the pandemic.

As lawmakers work to advance the reform legislation, there’s been a more lighthearted push to focus attention on the issue by certain members and activists. That push has mostly involved planting and gifting marijuana.

In September, a top administration official was gifted a cannabis plant by senator on the Senate floor, and she said she’d be making it a part of her personal garden.

A different lawmaker gave the same official, Interior Ministry Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero, a marijuana joint on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies in 2019.

Cannabis made another appearance in the legislature in August, when Sen. Jesusa Rodríguez of the MORENA party decorated her desk with a marijuana plant.

Drug policy reform advocates have also been cultivating hundreds of marijuana plants in front of the Senate, putting pressure on legislators to make good on their pledge to advance legalization.

Chuck Schumer Says Federal Marijuana Legalization Is A Priority In Democrats’ ‘Big, Bold Agenda’

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