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.”
USDA Approves Hemp Plans For Texas, Nebraska And Delaware
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Monday that it has approved hemp regulatory plans for three more states and four additional Indian tribes.
This is the latest in a series of approvals that USDA has doled out since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. Texas, Nebraska and Delaware—in addition to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and the Yurok Tribe—each had their regulatory plans cleared.
“USDA continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes on an ongoing basis,” the department said in a notice. “Plans previously approved include those for the states of Louisiana, New Jersey, and Ohio, and the Flandreau Santee Sioux, Santa Rosa Cahuilla, and La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indian Tribes.”
While hemp is no longer a federally controlled substance, farmers interested in cultivating and selling the crop must live in a jurisdiction where USDA has approved a proposed regulatory scheme. The process was outlined in an interim final rule USDA published late last year. If a state or tribe does not have, or plan to propose, regulations for hemp, cultivators can apply for a USDA license instead.
“This is a victory for Texas farmers,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement. “We are one step closer to giving our ag producers access to this exciting new crop opportunity.”
“We’ve got to get our rules approved and get our licensing program up and running, but the dominoes are dropping pretty quick,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment that “Texas has the potential to be the largest supplier of hemp in the U.S., providing farmers with an unprecedented opportunity.”
“With approval from the USDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture already moving forward with establishing licensing standards, it’s refreshing to see our government paving the way for legal cannabis cultivation in Texas,” Fazio said.
While lawmakers and industry stakeholders have widely celebrated USDA’s commitment to implementing hemp legalization, it has also received a significant amount of pushback over proposed rules such as THC limits and laboratory testing requirements. A public comment period for the department’s interim rule ends on Wednesday.
USDA maintains a website that tracks the status of state and tribal hemp plans.
Monday’s announcement sends another signal to the hemp industry that the federal government is committed to supporting the market and ensuring that farmers have the resources they need to see their businesses thrive since the crop was legalized.
That said, one of the most lucrative market opportunities that hemp farmers are hoping to take advantage of is the widespread interest in hemp-derived CBD products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over rules for marketing CBD, and the agency has made clear that the process may take several years without congressional action.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers set out to do just that, filing a bill that would require FDA to allow CBD products to be sold as dietary supplements.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Mexico’s President Says A New Marijuana Panel Will Make Legalization Recommendations
The president of Mexico said on Monday that a government panel is being formed in order to make recommendations for a legal marijuana system in the country.
While he didn’t offer many details about the commission, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said it will be focused on studying public health aspects of legalization.
“A group is going to be formed to decide what will happen about that with a public health approach. We are about to comply with the recommendation of the Supreme Court,” the president said during a press conference, according to a translation of his remarks, referencing a 2018 ruling that deemed the prohibition of cannabis for personal use unconstitutional.
Watch López Obrador’s marijuana comments, around 1:43:45 into the video below:
Asked to weigh in on the argument that regulating drugs like cannabis could combat cartels, the president said “we are analyzing this possibility” and went on to describe the state of play on legislation to legalize marijuana.
Since the court ruling, legislators have spent months discussing and drafting marijuana reform legislation to create a commercial cannabis market. Several Senate committees produced a comprehensive legalization bill last year, which advocates hoped would get a vote before the court’s October 2019 deadline to change the country’s marijuana policy, but that didn’t pan out.
The court granted lawmakers a deadline extension to end prohibition by April 30 of this year.
“We are about to fulfill this recommendation of the [Supreme Court] so that it becomes law,” he said. “We are going to process it, we are working on that—I think it will move forward. A group will be formed to decide what to do about this, basically.”
An amended reform bill, jointly submitted by the Justice and Health Committees, started circulating earlier this month. It would legalize possession of up to 28 grams, or 200 grams for those who obtain a certain license. Individuals would also be able to cultivate up to six plants.
“We have to review it well, of course, all with the public health approach, always with that approach, and taking into account the changes that are taking place,” the president said. “This is being analyzed.”
Sen. Ricardo Monreal Ávila of the ruling MORENA party stressed that the legislation isn’t final, but it’s a step in the right direction. He said he’ll be meeting with Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero and Julio Scherer, a legal advisor to the president, this week to discuss cannabis reform legislation.
Monreal, who included marijuana legalization in a list of legislative priorities this month, said he expects lawmakers to pass reform legislation ahead of the April deadline.
Advocates Push Back On Secretly Recorded Trump Claim That Marijuana Use Lowers IQ
Marijuana reform advocates are hitting back at President Trump’s suggestion that cannabis use makes people lose IQ points.
“In Colorado they have more accidents,” the president said of the first state to legalize cannabis for adult use. “It does cause an IQ problem.”
The comments were revealed over the weekend in a surreptitiously recorded video captured in April 2018 by Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani, who is involved in the Ukraine scandal that led to the president’s impeachment.
But when it comes to cannabis’s impact on intelligence, Trump has it wrong, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which determined based on longitudinal twin studies that there is not “a causal relationship between marijuana use and IQ loss.”
In interviews with Marijuana Moment on Monday, legalization advocates expressed frustration that the president perpetuated the prohibitionist talking point.
“Trump’s remarks simply reveal that he is out of touch, given that the majority of Americans support marijuana legalization for both medical and adult use,” Sheila Vakharia of the Drug Policy Alliance said. “This type of rhetoric is fear-mongering and inflammatory.”
“The evidence is clear from the dozens of states that have legalized medical and adult use—the sky isn’t falling and the kids are alright,” she said.
Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, said that “what truly causes a decline in an individual’s intelligence is adhering to false Reefer Madness rhetoric that flies in the face of available science.”
“If President Trump truly believes that responsible marijuana use by adults leads to a loss of IQ points, we suggest he immediately consults his physician to see if he is suffering from this affliction or at the very least consults the wide body of available research that debunks this old talking point,” he told Marijuana Moment.
Listen to Trump talk about marijuana, about 45:30 into the video below:
But while the president’s IQ claim came as a disappointment, there were other aspects of the secretly recorded dinner conversation concerning that cannabis reform advocates see as positive.
For example, Trump seemed surprised to hear that state-legal marijuana businesses don’t have access to traditional financial services, which Parnas described as “the biggest problem” in the industry.
“Cannabis, look, you’re talking about marijuana, right? You can’t do banking there?” the president said, adding that the issue is “all working out. That whole thing is working out.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” he said.
Trump, who has previously voiced support for allowing states to set their own marijuana policies, also asked others at the dinner table whether they believe “the whole marijuana thing is a good thing” and whether the plant is “actually good for opioids.”
One person said cannabis is a “better alternative” to prescription opioids, and Donald Trump Jr. noted that “alcohol does much more damage” than marijuana and that “you don’t see people beating their wives on marijuana. It’s just different.”
Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “pretty frustrating that the president, like many others, has been misled by ‘Just Say No’ propaganda into believing the disproven idea that cannabis consumption decreases intelligence.”
“However, this clip suggests that he is in a fairly good position or at least heading towards one on the issue overall,” he said. “I think it is pretty clear that he understands that prohibition is a failure from an economic standpoint, that states should be free from federal interference, and that reform could help with the opioid epidemic.”
“His statements regarding access to banking suggest that he would be willing to sign cannabis banking reform legislation that crosses his desk. Generally, it is very heartening to see that the administration is having substantive conversations about it, and we welcome the opportunity to continue this discussion with the president to make sure he recognizes the urgency of reform and has the facts.”
Later in the recording, Parnas made the case that Trump should embrace marijuana reform ahead of the 2018 midterm elections to attract young voters and get “ahead of” the issue.
“It’s so far out you’re not going to stop it,” he said. “I think you need to be ahead of it.”
Parnas pitched the idea of establishing a “bipartisan committee” with “no politicians” to independently explore possible policy changes and make recommendations to the administration. The president didn’t directly reply.
While Trump didn’t take up the suggestion to take the lead on cannabis prior to the 2018 election in which Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives, Don Murphy, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said it’s not too late for him to act.
The president “has an opportunity to make the history books undoing a war he inherited, waged against Americans—African Americans in particular—literally for generations,” he said.
“Even his predecessor continued that same failed policy, throwing even more people in prison. Not only that, he has a chance to out flank every Democratic candidate in the field,” Murphy told Marijuana Moment, referring to the Obama administration’s rejection of petitions to reclassify cannabis under federal law. “He would be remembered as our greatest criminal justice reformer in history.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.