Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) wants an update on that status of a federal report into research barriers that are inhibiting the development of a standardized test for marijuana impairment on the roads.
The senator sent a letter on the issue to the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Tuesday, which marked the one-year anniversary of President Joe Biden signing a large-scale infrastructure bill that included language mandating the cannabis report.
Under the law, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is required to complete the report by November 2023, so Hickenlooper’s letter serves as a check-in on the agency’s progress halfway through the timeline.
The legislation that included the mandate is also aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis—but the senator’s letter focused on the impaired driving report component of the overall cannabis section.
“Preventing distracted or impaired driving is a key step towards the goal of reducing traffic fatalities and improving roadway safety,” Hickenlooper wrote, adding that “many ambiguities around defining marijuana-impaired driving underscore the importance of clarifying this policy uncertainty.”
The senator, who previously served as Colorado’s governor when voters there approved legalization, acknowledged that NHTSA and other federal agencies have published studies on the impact of ending prohibition on impaired driving, but he said that those studies have been “limited to surveys of existing academic literature and therefore only produced findings that are unable to be independently verified scientifically by the agency.”
“Due to the statutory classification of marijuana as a controlled substance, federal researchers face barriers not only to evaluating marijuana’s effects on a driver’s performance, but also in developing tests to accurately detect the amount of THC in a driver’s body or determine a THC impairment level,” Hickenlooper’s letter to NHTSA Acting Administrator Ann Carlson says.
Of course, the Schedule I status of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) affects research of all kind, imposing onerous processes for scientists to access marijuana from authorized sources to carry out research.
“The report required by Section 25026 of the IIJA is a critical first step to identify the barriers that prevent the development of an impairment standard for driving after consuming marijuana,” Hickenlooper said. “Once these barriers are identified, informed by interagency consensus, Congress would have a suite of policy recommendations to consider and implement that further advance our shared goal to prevent impaired driving and reduce roadway fatalities.”
One study that was published earlier this year found that states that have enacted legalization are seeing less driving under the influence of marijuana than states that have maintained criminalization.
While advocates hope that the infrastructure legislation provisions on freeing up researchers to access marijuana from dispensaries will have broad implications for any kind of studies, that section was specifically intended to further support research into impaired driving.
It makes it so the transportation secretary must work with the attorney general and secretary of health and human services to develop a public report within two years of the bill’s enactment that includes recommendations on allowing scientists to access retail-level marijuana.
“I look forward to learning about NHTSA’s progress to develop the interagency report on barriers to researching marijuana-impaired driving,” Hickenlooper’s letter says.
The senator separately announced this month that he will soon be filing a bill to direct the attorney general to create a commission charged with making recommendations on a regulatory system for marijuana that models what’s currently in place for alcohol. The measure’s introduction is meant to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of Colorado legalizing adult-use cannabis at the ballot.
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Hickenlooper recently participated in an event with current Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the vote, which he opposed at the time. He has since acknowledged, however, that many of his fears about ending prohibition haven’t materialized, particularly when it comes to youth cannabis use.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure law enacted last year also faced criticism from activists because of the inclusion of a separate amendment encouraging states that have enacted legalization laws—and only those states—to educate people about impaired driving.
Reform advocates share an interest in discouraging driving under the influence of cannabis, but they also feel that any public education campaigns on the issue should be holistic, rather than singling out states that have legalized.
Experts and advocates have emphasized that evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.
A study published in 2019, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.
Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “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.”
Another recent study found that smoking CBD-rich marijuana had “no significant impact” on driving ability, despite the fact that all study participants exceeded the per se limit for THC in their blood.
Read the senator’s letter asking for a status update on the federal marijuana impaired driving report below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.