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Marijuana and Driving: Navigating a Hazy Path

Today, legalized marijuana is a reality in 23 states. Four of these states, as well as the District of Columbia, allow personal and medical use, while the other states allow medical use. This year, at least another five states could follow suit with personal and medicinal use ballot measures.

Despite Ohio’s resounding defeat of Issue 3 last November, it’s evident that legal marijuana continues to gain traction in many parts of the country. What’s decidedly less clear are conclusive results from current studies that analyze the effects of driving under its influence, thanks largely to contradictory research, imprecise measurements, and weak links between intoxication and vehicular accidents.

Survey says…

In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published two studies that really highlight the ambiguity and confusion around this topic. The first report confirmed what many have long believed; namely, that legalization could boost the number of marijuana-impaired drivers. In a 2013-2014 roadside survey of more than 9,000 drivers, 12.6 percent tested positive for THC (the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) compared to 8.6 percent in 2007 – a 47 percent increase. Additionally, the percentage of drivers at or above the legal limit for alcohol was 8.3 percent – down 80 percent since a 1973 NHTSA roadside survey.

The second NHTSA report focused on crash risk. According to the agency, this report was the “first large-scale study in the United States to include drugs other than alcohol.” Data from more than 3,000 crash-involved drivers was collected and subsequently compared to 6,000 drivers who were not involved in crashes.

The results: Drivers who tested positive for THC were 25 percent more likely to be involved in a crash. Yet other factors, including age, gender, ethnicity and blood alcohol concentration, were more likely to be considered the cause of the crash than the presence of drugs. According to NHTSA researchers, “Caution should be exercised in assuming that drug presence implies driver impairment

What is “Stoned”? Marijuana intoxication definition varies by state

Further complicating the issue is the very definition of marijuana intoxication, which on a state-by-state basis is anything but consistent. In cases of drunk driving, blood alcohol concentration proves an accurate legal measure of impairment, no matter what state you’re in. Not so in cases that involve marijuana.

Even after psychoactive effects of marijuana have worn off, users can retain measurable amounts of THC in their bodies for days or even weeks. According to the NHTSA, “Most psychoactive drugs are chemically complex molecules, whose absorption, action and elimination from the body are difficult to predict, and considerable differences exist between individuals with regard to the rates at which these processes occur. Alcohol, in comparison, is more predictable.”

Consequently, different states define driving “under the influence” of drugs differently. Some follow a zero-tolerance standard, making it illegal to have any presence of THC or other illegal drugs in the body while driving. Others set a legal THC limit expressed in nanograms (or one-billionth of a gram) per milliliter of blood. Still other states infer impairment based on circumstances rather than THC levels in one’s blood.

Given such ambiguity, lawyers and insurance professionals are hard pressed to act decisively and with authority in cases where marijuana plays a role in serious motor vehicle crash injuries.

What does it all mean for Ohio drivers?

While marijuana remains illegal in Ohio, residents here continue to consume it…and very unfortunately, some continue to get behind the wheel while under its influence. There is an abundance of evidence that links marijuana use to impaired driving skills. Yet as the NHTSA reports make clear, more study is needed on the effect that marijuana has on driving skills. Additionally, equipment that detects and measures marijuana-related impairment should continue to evolve and progress.

The science of marijuana intoxication is also different than that of alcohol; as such, it deserves thoughtful consideration by policymakers, law enforcement officials and court officers. If and when Ohio does legalize marijuana for medicinal and/or personal use, we hope that laws regarding driving under its influence reflect such consideration, and hold high regard for driver and pedestrian safety. Until then, stay tuned – this is an area of law that continues to evolve rapidly.

The attorneys at Nager, Romaine & Schneiberg Co., L.P.A. will continue to actively monitor this area of the law. For more information, please contact us today at 216-289-4740, Toll Free at (855) Got-Hurt, or by filling out our No-Risk Consultation form.

Disclaimer: The information in this blog post (“post”) is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.
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