How does an officer recognize a stoned driver?
The gathering outside Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday had the hallmark of most holiday season safe driving events: A gaggle of public safety officials and publicists delivering a stern message about driving sober and sparing loved ones from the tragedies resulting from impaired people getting behind the wheel.
But this time, the gathering came a month after California voters passed Proposition 64 to legalize marijuana for recreational use. So the standard warnings about drunken driving morphed with new ones about stoned driving.
And they didn’t stop at single intoxicants. Officials from the California Highway Patrol, the state Office of Traffic Safety and the National Highway Safety Administration also warned of driving under the influence of two or more substances at a time. The agency has created public service spots on driving dangers of marijuana and prescription drugs, particularly when combined with alcohol.
“The use of prescription medications and marijuana is becoming increasingly prominent among drivers and is creating more safety concerns,” said Rhonda Craft, California traffic safety director as she delivered the driving safety slogan for the event: “DUI doesn’t just mean booze.”
But the primary discussion point for Tuesday’s event was clearly marijuana.
Proposition 64, passed by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin, now allows adults 21 and older to possess, use and share up to an ounce of marijuana. The initiative left in place current laws against driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including pot, leaving it up to law enforcement to determine from driving behavior and other observations what constitutes impairment.
So officials invited a special guest, Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, a marijuana business lobbying group, to underscore the group’s message that it is just as illegal to drive stoned as it is to drive impaired by alcohol.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been consuming (marijuana) for 30 years or you’re a brand new user of this product,” said Bradley, a former Wheatland police officer. “Stoned driving is still impaired driving. And driving after smoking a joint is still illegal.”
California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joseph Farrow said it is too early to know if the initiative has put more impaired drivers on the road. But he said officers appear to be encountering drivers who have consumed both alcohol and pot and – sometimes – additional substances as well.
On Monday, Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey of Palmdale introduced legislation to allow roadside testing of drivers’ saliva for recent exposure to marijuana as a means of investigating potential stoned or drugged driving. The bill wouldn’t set a firm legal standard for impairment.
Farrow, who said he isn’t familiar with the legislation, said he favors any tool that can provide useful evidence for traffic officers.
“That’s part of the problem,” Farrow said. “You pull someone over and that person appears impaired. Is it prescription drugs? Is it marijuana. Is it drowsiness? Or just a bad driver?”
Chris Murphy, regional administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said 2012 California traffic data indicated that motorists stopped for suspicion of drunken driving were often impaired by multiple substances. Twenty-three percent tested positive for both alcohol or other drugs, including marijuana, illicit narcotics, or prescription or over-the-counter medications such as sleep aids, painkillers, muscle relaxants or sedatives.
He said legalized marijuana could create a common, doubly impairing situation.
“Pot and alcohol have more of an impact on driving when they are mixed together,” he said.