Congress is worried about a potential increase in stoned drivers on the road, and looking at ways to combat potential fatalities caused by toking motorists.
As more American states consider pot decriminalization, a sober congressional hearing was held Thursday that revealed just how little information the federal government has about drivers under the influence of marijuana, and how difficult it would be to set a legal limit for marijuana intoxication.
The House hearing, titled “Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Operating While Stoned,” was also an illustration of how public officials might be overemphasizing the threat posed by high drivers.
“No one is arguing that [driving while high is] a good idea, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t have a lot of data,” said Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly. “[Public policy has] got to be based on science, and we need more of it.”
Although marijuana remains a prohibited Schedule I drug on the federal level, Washington and Colorado have legalized it, and other states may soon follow suit.
Lawmakers are looking at whether it would be possible to set a standard limit of use that drivers must stay below, similar to the blood alcohol content restriction of 0.08 percent. But THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, has different effects on different people, making it hard to determine a threshold for impairment.
“The response of individuals to increasing amount of THC is much more variable than for alcohol,” testified Dr. Jeffrey Michael, a lead researcher for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “A more precise association of THC levels and degrees of impairment are not yet available.”
Patrice Kelly, representing the Department of Transportation’s Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy and Compliance, said that their office’s data on national drug testing hasn’t shown a significant increase in the use of marijuana between 2008 and the present.
The hearing at times swerved into unscientific anecdotes, even as lawmakers and panelists agreed that we really have no idea how often Americans drive stoned or the number of transportation fatalities that can be blamed on the drug.
Christopher Hart, the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, cited gruesome accidents involving a drug-influenced driver, including one about a day-care van operator who crashed while high, resulting in five deaths.
But even he acknowledged that while the stories are terrible, “We don’t have a good idea of the number of drug-related transportation fatalities” in the United States. “There is not enough data,” he added later.
Rep. John Mica, who chairs the government oversight subcommittee that held the hearing, told a story about a friend who he says refuses to go on vacation in Colorado because he is worried about “somebody stoned posing a risk to him.” However, Mica provided no evidence indicating that Colorado has become more dangerous since it legalized marijuana.
“Individuals who are driving under the influence of marijuana will have little inhibitions for drinking beer, alcohol… smoking a joint behind the wheel, or whatever it takes to feel good,” theorized Rep. John Fleming, a Republican from Louisiana. “As marijuana is de-stigmatized… It finds its way into homes, into candy, into cookies and baked goods. And once it gets there it finds its way into the brains of teens.”
Unquestioned at the congressional hearing is whether the federal government should even play a role in restricting marijuana use during the operation of a motor vehicle, to the frustration of pot advocates.
“Most states already have laws that directly address driving while impaired under any substance, including marijuana,” said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. “So far, federal drug policy has done nothing but hinder the states with experimenting with different policies… Ideally the federal government should not be involved in marijuana policy at all.”