Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Public safety arguments for arresting pot smokers eroding

One of the main arguments trotted out in Texas by opponents of legislation to reduce penalties for personal-use marijuana possession (mainly police union reps) is that there's no reliable way for police to detect stoned drivers on the side of the road the way there is for drunk ones. That's true to an overstated extent, for the moment (even as I write this, technology advances, and observed impairment during roadside sobriety tests still would merit arrest). But it doesn't justify arresting every driver with marijuana in their bloodstream as potentially impaired because pot remains detectable in the system long after impairment subsides. Such are the implications of a federal report described by Christopher Ingraham under the Washington Post headline, "Stoned drivers are a lot safer than drunk ones, new federal data show."

His article opened, "A new study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finds that drivers who use marijuana are at a significantly lower risk for a crash than drivers who use alcohol. And after adjusting for age, gender, race and alcohol use, drivers who tested positive for marijuana  were no more likely to crash than who had not used any drugs or alcohol prior to driving." That could be a game changing pronouncement. (The story included the remarkable chart at right.)

It's been extraordinary how rapidly public opinion has shifted on marijuana regulation. Legalized pot in Colorado, Washington and elsewhere transformed the terms of debate both nationally and in Texas. And myth busting research like this contributes to a more honest, evidence-based debate over these sorts of once-taboo topics.

That said, this news shouldn't be taken as license to immediately go smoke and drive. Ingraham's column concluded:
So, should we all assume that we're safe to blaze one and go for a joyride whenever the whimsy strikes us? Absolutely not. There's plenty of evidence showing that marijuana use impairs key driving skills. If you get really stoned and then get behind the wheel, you're asking for trouble.

What we do need, however, are better roadside mechanisms for detecting marijuana-related impairment. Several companies are developing pot breathalyzers for this purpose.

We also need a lot more research into the effects of marijuana use on driving ability, particularly to get a better sense of how pot's effect on driving diminishes in the hours after using. But this kind of research remains incredibly difficult to do, primarily because the federal government still classifies weed as a Schedule 1 substance, as dangerous as heroin.
Bottom line, impaired drivers should be arrested and taken off the road whether they're drunk, stoned, or high on prescription drugs. But the argument that cops must arrest every pot smoker because they might drive impaired doesn't jibe with reality or the data reviewed by the feds. As a general rule, there's no greater public safety benefit from arresting and jailing a pot smoker than from giving them a Class C ticket or a civil citation.


JohnT said...

Dangerous pot driving is an exhausted, old argument. Back in the 70s, Science (a respected publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) published a report from some scholars at the U of Washington (I think it was) that purported to show that marijuana affected driver reflexes. That report was exaggerated and distorted by the media to "prove" that marijuana was unsafe for driving. It was a media bandwagon. Since I had read the Science report, I was dismayed by the brouhaha.

This is from memory, so I may be misremembering details. But the gist is right.

Somebody more ambitious than me can look up the article.

Anonymous said...

I smoke everyday dont smoke and drive ..it is my opinion that it is very dangerous to do both.

Anonymous said...

While heavy, long-term marijuana use is harmful, it is overall less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. Law enforcement is right that they often deal with potheads that are druggies and out of control. It's important to note though that most marijuana smokers are casual users, just as most alcohol users are. Law enforcement usually deals with the most visible part of a using population, be it alcohol or marijuana, so they tend to see the worst actors. That doesn't mean their experiences aren't real, but they tend to miss the professionals, businessmen, etc., that use marijuana quietly.

The media has played up marijuana's effects on the brain by writing articles about single studies. However, the best way to judge a substance is a systematic review of the literature and/or a meta analysis. As we talk about marijuana and the brain, a 2012 scientific literature review titled "Residual effects of cannabis use on neurocognitive performance after prolonged abstinence: a meta-analysis." (Schreiner AM1, Dunn ME.) deserves attention that the media didn't give it which concluded, "Overall, these meta-analyses demonstrate that any negative residual effects on neurocognitive performance attributable to either cannabis residue or withdrawal symptoms are limited to the first 25 days of abstinence. Furthermore, there was no evidence for enduring negative effects of cannabis use." This took into account the full scientific literature on cannabis and cognitive functioning and seem to indicate that after stopping use, there isn't permanent negative cognitive effects.

The mental illness component is more complicated with teen use and we should discourage teen use with education and treatment. But the evidence is not conclusive at this point on that either. See:
Minozzi S, Davoli M, Bargagli AM, Amato L, Vecchi S, Perucci CA (2010): An overview of systematic reviews on cannabis and psychosis: Discussing apparently conflicting results. Drug Alcohol Rev, 2010 May, 29(3):304-317.

Bottom line: No one should be arrested and given a criminal record for marijuana possession. We have all made unhealthy choices with alcohol, tobacco, fatty foods, drinks, sugar, or sedentary behavior at some point in our lives. The answer isn't to criminalize these poor choices.

Johnny Fever from WKRP said...

The more I drink, the more sober I get.

Anonymous said...

A civil penalty, fine only, Class C for up to an ounce of marijuana possession ...

Where does the casual user get their pot? A drug dealer? So, if the casual user's offense is decriminalized. What about the dealer? Why isn't their behavior decriminalized? Is there really a casual user? When the casual user purchases their pot, does the behavior equate to a speeding ticket?

People smoke pot to get high, for the effect. Just like people use alcohol for the effect. I doubt seriously anyone is using any type of drug whether it be alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, etc. because it tastes good.

If the pot possessors begin to be permitted to pay fines only, what about all the past arrests for marihuana possession, what about all the persons presently incarcerated or on probation for cannabis.

Anonymous said...

Where does the casual user get their pot? A drug dealer? So, if the casual user's offense is decriminalized. What about the dealer? Why isn't their behavior decriminalized?"

Why is 4 ounces or less of marijuana a misdemeanor and more than that or dealing a felony? The same logic applies to making it a fine. Texas chooses to punish people more for larger amounts and for actions that affect more people. For instance, a dealer could be selling to children which is more harmful to Texans. Texas could choose to legalize marijuana for adults and make licensed dealing and growing of marijuana legal, but I've never heard of someone proposing that unregulated marijuana dealing be decriminalized.

"Is there really a casual user? When the casual user purchases their pot, does the behavior equate to a speeding ticket?"

Depends on how you want to define casual. If you want to say no one is a casual user because if they use marijuana or alcohol to have some type of effect, then no one is a casual user of alcohol or marijuana. Most people define casual users as someone that uses small amounts of a substance. The top 10% of alcohol users in America are responsible for 50% of alcohol sales (google it). They aren't casual, they are heavy and chronic alcohol users. Colorado is seeing the same thing with marijuana users. The top 10% of the heaviest marijuana users are buying most of the pot. A casual user is someone in the bottom 50% that uses small amounts of marijuana or alcohol once or twice a week. A moderate user would be small amounts daily or every other day, that is a few puffs or 1 to 2 drinks.

"If the pot possessors begin to be permitted to pay fines only, what about all the past arrests for marihuana possession, what about all the persons presently incarcerated or on probation for cannabis."

They are left on probation and in jail or prison unless Texas decides to retroactively change things. But Texas doesn't have to. The argument can be made that those that broke the law while it was a class B should take responsibility since they broke the law under those penalties. Texas could make the change retroactively, but it's a tougher sell to the legislature and the public.

Anonymous said...

"When the casual user purchases their pot, does the behavior equate to a speeding ticket?"

I didn't answer the latter part of your question. The short answer is it depends on who you ask. 49-58% (2014 TT/UT poll and 2013 PPP poll respectively; they were worded differently) of Texans would say adult marijuana possession should be legal and regulated, meaning that it shouldn't even result in a civil fine.

Anonymous said...

This will all be decided by the bean counters once they determine how much various entities can make off of legalizing
cannabis, to what degree, and whether the retroactive change in legislation can also equate somehow to making a buck off the "user/abuser" of marijuana. It is ALWAYS about the money and pretending it's anything other than that leads me to ask the question" "What planet are you from?"