State officials charged with coming up with detection and enforcement guidelines for marijuana-related drugged driving had more questions than answers at their first meeting yesterday, less than three weeks before pot is due to go on sale for recreational use.
“This is a lot of work to get done,” said Shawn Collins, chairman of the Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving and executive director of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. “We’ll get as much work done as quickly as we possibly can, but that’s going to require us to be very diligent.”
Under state law, licensed companies can begin selling cannabis on July 1, but the work to implement a standard for preventing and detecting high drivers has just begun. The 13-member commission must report its recommendations to the state Legislature by Jan. 1.
“We do have a pretty tight timeline if we’re going to have a finished product by January,” said David Solet, chief legal counsel for the Office of Public Safety.
The commission is charged with recommending the best way to detect and, in many cases, prosecute impaired drivers.
“Everybody wants to find the silver bullet, the equivalent of the alcohol Breathalyzer, for drugs and marijuana impairment,” said John Scheft, an attorney on the commission.
But unlike alcohol, which has a clear standard, there is no widely accepted indicator police and prosecutors can use to show a driver was legally impaired.
“There is no .08 equivalent for marijuana … That’s one of the things we’ll be looking at on this commission,” Mary Maguire of AAA New England said.
States across the country have taken different approaches, including Washington state, which tests for the presence of THC in the blood of someone suspected of driving while high. But those tests are not easy to administer and are costly. Walpole police Chief John Carmichael said his department pays $250 for each blood test it sends to be analyzed.
“We need standardized field sobriety testing for dealing with these situations, because it is different than alcohol,” Carmichael said.
Any test would need to be standardized across the state and would have to be able to be admitted as evidence by a judge, commission members said.
Maguire said a AAA study found fatal crashes involving someone who recently used marijuana doubled in Washington state after recreational pot was legalized.
“That’s certainly a concern. This is really new territory for many states,” she said.
The commission is also charged with reviewing the state’s current OUI law, and recommending possible changes. One change is a likely adjustment of the law against smoking marijuana while driving to bring it in line with driving with an open container of alcohol.
The commission will meet again in two weeks, and expects to meet regularly until it submits its report to the Legislature.