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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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Alabama House Approves Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill That Already Passed The Senate

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The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday approved a Senate-passed bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

After previously clearing two House committees last month, it passed the full chamber by a vote of 68-34.

The win came after opponents staged a lengthy filibuster on the floor earlier this week, drawing out the process by making a series of speeches and asking questions until the end of the day’s session at midnight approached. Those stalling tactics did not continue on Thursday.

Sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson (R), the bill would allow people with qualifying conditions to access cannabis for therapeutic purposes. The full Senate approved the legislation in March.

To qualify for the program, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers in future sessions.

Prior to the vote on final passage, the House considered several floor amendments.

The body rejected proposals to place a limit of 10 milligrams of THC per dose for medical cannabis products, to remove depression as a qualifying condition and to enact a zero tolerance policy for drivers with THC in their systems. Another amendment that would have repealed the state program if marijuana is federally rescheduled, so that people would get medical cannabis from pharmacies instead of dispensaries, was also defeated.

Lawmakers did accept an amendment changing local control provisions from opt out to make it so that cities and counties would have to opt in to allowing medical cannabis businesses. They also made a change to name the bill after the deceased son of a lawmaker who previously sponsored medical marijuana legislation.

Because the Senate-passed measure has been revised in the House, it will have to go back to the the other chamber for additional consideration before being sent to the desk of Gov. Kay Ivey (R).

Melson is the same lawmaker who sponsored similar legislation that was approved by the full Senate last year but which later died without any House votes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This latest proposal, SB 46, would establish an Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to implement regulations and oversee licensing.

The House Judiciary Committee approved 10 amendments to the legislation during a hearing last month. For example, members agreed to scrap provisions providing reciprocity for out-of-state patients and reducing the percentage of marijuana tax revenue that would go to cannabis research from 30 to 15 percent.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 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.

Later, in the Health Committee, members approved a change that would add an annual registration fee for physicians who recommend cannabis. Another would give the state attorney general’s office access to a patient registry database.

That panel further accepted an amendment to remove fibromyalgia and menopause from the list of qualifying conditions and another to expand the number of institutions that are eligible for grants to research marijuana. A revision to develop a uniform flavor for all cannabis products was also attached.

Additionally, an amendment was approved to require dispensaries to have 24-hour security cameras operating in their facilities.

Advocates say they’re encouraged that medical cannabis reform is advancing in Alabama, but they’ve raised concerns about a number of aspects of the bill.

One problematic provision, advocates say, is that patients with chronic or intractable pain could only be recommended medical marijuana in cases where “conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or has proved ineffective.”

The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients would instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.

Patients would be allowed to purchase and possess up to “70 daily dosages of medical cannabis.” Under an amendment approved on the Senate floor, the maximum daily dose was reduced from 75 to 50 milligrams. However, the amendment’s sponsor said it could be increased to 75 milligrams in some circumstances.

The revision also calls for a label on marijuana products to indicate that cannabis can cause drowsiness.

It also calls for a nine percent gross proceeds tax on medical marijuana sales.

Patients, caregivers and and medical cannabis businesses would receive legal protections under the proposal, preventing them from being penalized for activities authorized by the state.

For physicians to be able to recommend cannabis to patients, they would have to complete a four-hour continuing education course and pass an exam. The course would cost upwards of $500 and doctors would also be required to take refresher classes every two years.

Under the bill, regulators would be tasked with developing restrictions on advertising and setting quality control standards. Seed-to-sale tracking and laboratory testing would be mandated.

Other changes approved earlier in the Senate would add language to stipulate that gelatinous cannabis products cannot be sugar coated and insert provisions promoting good manufacturing practices and tamper-evident packaging.

Applications for cannabis business licenses would have to be accepted starting September 1, 2022 and then proceeded within 60 days.

The commission would be required to approve at least four cultivators, up to four processors, up to four dispensaries for the first year of implementation (more could be approved after that point depending on demand) and as many as five vertically integrated operators.

This bill’s reintroduction had been greatly anticipated by advocates. The Senate approved a separate medical cannabis bill in 2019, but the House later severely compromised it. The legislation as enacted would not have legalized patient access; rather, it set up a study commission to explore the issue and make recommendations.

The commission came back with its report in December 2019, with members recommending that medical marijuana be legalized.

There has been additional pressure on the legislature to enact legalization given that voters in neighboring Mississippi approved a medical cannabis reform initiative during the November election.

Separately, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill in March to decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of cannabis, making it punishable by a $250 fine without the threat of jail time. But the measure later failed a procedural motion on the Senate floor.

Kansas Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill In Committee

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash.

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Texas House Approves Psychedelics Research Bill As Marijuana Reform Measures Also Advance

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The Texas House of Representatives on Thursday approved to a bill that would require the state to conduct a study into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA. This comes as numerous marijuana reform measures move through the legislature.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Alex Dominguez (D), passed by a vote of 134-12. It had advanced on second reading via a voice vote a day earlier. It now heads to the Senate.

The House Public Health Committee passed the bill with amendments last week. Members revised the measure to limit the scope of the state-funded study to focus on military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), rather than a broader list of conditions attached to the initial bill.

“We lose about 6,000 veterans every year—and since 2001, we have lost 114,000 of our veterans to PTSD and suicide,” Dominguez said on the floor before the second reading vote.

The legislation will do something that’s “sorely needed, and that’s taking a fresh look at what we can do to save the lives of our servicemen and women that have given their lives to this country,” he said. “We can make a difference, and we can send a message to Washington that they need to be doing more.”

The bill would require the state to study the medical risks and benefits of psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine for veterans in partnership with Baylor College of Medicine and a military-focused medical center. It was also amended to mandate a clinical trial into psilocybin for veterans with PTSD, in addition to a broader review of the scientific literature on all three substances.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 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.

The Health and Human Services Commission would have to submit quarterly reports on their progress, with a full report on the panel’s findings be due by December 2024.

Former Gov. Rick Perry (R), who also served as U.S. energy secretary, has called on lawmakers to approve the psychedelics legislation.

This is the latest drug policy reform bill to move through the legislature this session.

Last week, the House approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession, sending it to the Senate. It would make possession of up to one ounce of cannabis a class C misdemeanor that does not come with the threat of jail time.

Texas lawmakers have also recently passed proposals to expand the state’s medical marijuana program and reduce penalties for possessing cannabis concentrates.

The House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session.

Lawmakers last week also sent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) a bill to clarify that a positive marijuana test alone is not sufficient criteria for removing a child from their home.

On Tuesday, the House approved legislation that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products.

But most of these proposals face an uphill battle in the Senate, where it remains to be seen whether legislators will have the same appetite for reform or what kind of changes they might push for in any particular bill. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has killed prior efforts to enact cannabis reform in the state, raising questions about the prospects of far-reaching changes advancing in the chamber.

For example, shortly after the House approved a decriminalization bill in 2019, Patrick declared the measure “dead in the Texas Senate,” stating that he sides with lawmakers “who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana.”

That same year, a spokesperson for the lieutenant governor was asked about a medical cannabis expansion bill and reiterated that he is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

That’s all to say that, unless Patrick has a change of heart on the issue, there’s still a risk that he could singlehandedly quash the reform measures. But other legislative leaders do seem to be warming on the policy.

House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said during a Texas Young Republicans event in March that while he wouldn’t be able to distinguish marijuana from oregano, he said, “I understand the issue.”

The speaker said that he voted for a limited medical cannabis legalization bill during his freshman year in the legislature, and his support for the reform is partly based on the fact that he has a “sister with severe epilepsy, and small amounts of CBD oil makes a big difference in people’s lives.”

Phelan also noted that he was a “joint author—no pun intended” of cannabis decriminalization legislation last session.

“I was able to go back home and explain it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “To me, it’s a reasonable criminal justice reform issue.”

Texans’ support for legalizing marijuana has grown significantly over the past decade, according to a poll released last month.

Sixty percent of state voters now back making cannabis legal “for any use,” the University of Texas and Texas Tribune survey found. That compares to just 42 percent who said the same back in 2010.

And while Patrick’s record on the issue is a source of concern for advocates, he and other legislative leaders have recently indicated that they anticipate more modest proposals to be taken up and potentially approved this session, particularly as it concerns expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

Patrick said flatly, “sure, that will be looked at this session” when asked about the prospect of expanding access to medical marijuana in January.

“We’re always listening on the health issues, but we’re not going to turn this into California,” he said, “where anybody can get a slip from the doctor and go down to some retail store and say, ‘You know, I got a headache today so I need marijuana,’ because that’s just a veil for legalizing it for recreational use.”

Phelan said he thinks “the House will look at” reform measures this year, including bills to legalize for adult use. He said the lawmakers will likely “review those again, and some will get traction, some will not.” However, the Senate remains an obstacle for comprehensive reform.

Legislators in the state prefiled more than a dozen pieces of cannabis legislation ahead of the new session. That includes bills that would legalize recreational marijuana, allow high-THC cannabis for medical use and decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana.

Don’t Punish Universities That Study Marijuana, Bipartisan Lawmakers Urge In Letter To Congressional Leaders

Image courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.

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Don’t Punish Universities That Study Marijuana, Bipartisan Lawmakers Urge In Letter To Congressional Leaders

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Universities that engage in cannabis research should not have to fear losing their federal funds just for doing science, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers recently said in a letter to congressional leaders.

The letter, led by Reps. Joe Neguse (D-CO) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), requests that language be included in the base bill of forthcoming appropriations legislation stipulating that funds from the Department of Education cannot be withheld solely because a given institution is “conducting or is preparing to conduct research” into marijuana.

“The issue at hand is whether the federal government’s prohibition of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) should be a basis for federal agencies to withhold funds from higher education institutions that seek to provide a base for cannabis-specific research,” the letter, which was signed by 15 other lawmakers joining Neguse and Armstrong, states. “This risk is particularly worrying for institutions in those states and in the District of Columbia that have taken steps to legalize both the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis, and the majority of U.S. states that presently authorize and regulate the issue of medical cannabis by statute.”

“Currently, there are a multitude of higher education institutions conducting a range of cannabis related research, including many in our districts, who prefer for future developments to occur through an accredited educational setting,” it continues. “Formal research is especially important as more states legalize medical marijuana. We need medical professionals who are equipped with the knowledge and certification to discuss competently issues surrounding cannabis and health.”

“Evidence-based research regarding cannabis ought to be encouraged in academic settings, not discouraged. Although many schools and universities have expressed an interest in conducting scientific and observational research on the cannabis plant, they remain hesitant to do so because of a fear of potentially losing eligibility to receive federal grants from the Department of Education… Our constitutional framework has afforded the whole nation the chance to allow states to differ on many matters of public policy, including cannabis. As a result, that same framework should be extended to the protection of research of cannabis at higher education institutions.”

The lawmakers want leaders in the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee to insert language into an upcoming spending bill that specifically protects colleges that allow marijuana to be researched at their institutions.

The proposed rider reads:

“None of the funds provided by this Act or provided by previous Appropriations Acts to the Department of Education shall be withheld from an institute of higher education solely because that institute is conducting or is preparing to conduct research on marihuana as defined in 21 U.S.C. § 802 (16).”

The subcommittee included a similar rider in an appropriations bill that was introduced last year and passed by the House, so it’s not unlikely that it will do so again. That said, the Senate under Republican control did not follow suit last time and the language did not make it into final appropriations legislation that was signed into law. It remains to be seen if the new Democratic Senate will advance the cannabis provision this time.

Beside Neguse and Armstrong, signatories on the new letter are: Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Salud Carbajal (D-CA), Ken Buck (R-CO), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Peter Welch (D-VT), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Don Young (R-AK), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Dina Titus (D-NV), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Lou Correa (D-CA), Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Jared Huffman (D-CA).

Neguse, Armstrong and and 25 colleagues wrote a similar letter to House leadership in 2019, stating that “there are a multitude of higher education institutions conducting a range of cannabis-related research, including many in our districts, who prefer for future developments to occur through an accredited educational setting.”

This is the second cannabis-related letter to be sent by congressional lawmakers to appropriators this session—and there’s increased optimism among advocates that the requests will be honored given that Democrats now control both chambers of Congress and the White House.

Last month, a bipartisan group of legislators joined a sign-on letter urging leaders of a key committee to include provisions protecting all state, territory and tribal marijuana programs from federal interference in upcoming annual spending legislation when it is introduced.

That sign-on letter—led by Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), along with Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)—notes the growing number of states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes and argues that the Department of Justice should be barred from enforcing prohibition against citizens who comply with those local policies.

Read the letter on university protections for marijuana research below: 

Cannabis Research Letter by Marijuana Moment

Colorado Governor Signs Bill To Expand Medical Marijuana Access For Students In Schools

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