Driving Stoned: Are Field Sobriety Tests and Drug Recognition Experts the Next Big Step?

On Friday, the CU Denver School of Public Affairs hosted its first Buechner Breakfast of the 2014-2015 school year. The topic: "Driving Stoned: The Challenges of Regulating Marijuana and Driving."

Most of the arguments about marijuana impairment and driving that panelists Robert Ticer (chief of the Avon Police Department and chair of the Impaired Driving Task Force) and Mike Elliott (executive director of Marijuana Industry Group) traded back-and forth were not new. But some of the audience commentary shed light on alternatives to testing blood for THC.

See also: Marijuana: MMJ Patient Numbers Drop Slightly Despite High Rec Prices, Lawmakers' Fears

Elliott and Ticer began by providing an overview of the current driving-while-impaired marijuana-related law and stated opposing positions; Ticer would like to see the five nanogram THC limit lowered and the law changed to a "per-se" legal slant instead of the current "permissible inference" wording. ("Permissible inference" means that drivers can argue that they were not impaired in front of a jury; a "per se" reading of the law would mean that drivers would be considered intoxicated if they met or surpassed the legal blood limit and no argument otherwise would be possible.) Elliott countered that the current law represents a decent compromise between the marijuana and law-enforcement realms and that it should not be changed.

Not surprisingly, the various contentions centered around the questionable nature of a THC blood limit, since, unlike alcohol, impairment does not necessarily correlate with THC levels. For example, a novice user of marijuana with a relatively low level of THC in his or her blood would likely be much more impaired after consuming a certain amount of cannabis than would a regular user of marijuana with a relatively high level of THC in his or her blood.

When the time turned to audience questioning, one audience member asked about other options for testing for marijuana impairment -- such as a saliva test (which would likely carry the same complications as a blood test) or a roadside impairment test.

Chief Ticer stated that field sobriety tests were designed to test a person's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle (which would seem to apply to both alcohol and marijuana). He also mentioned drug-recognition-expert officers: police officers who have been specially trained to identify impaired drivers. In addition to breathalyzers and toxicological examinations, drug-recognition-expert officers also use pulse tests, eye examinations, divided-attention tests, muscle-tone exams and more to evaluate potential drug and alcohol intoxication. Ticer said that at the moment, only about 1 percent of all police officers are trained drug recognition experts.

In his response, Elliott reinforced the concept that THC content in blood is a poor metric for examining marijuana intoxication and emphasized a need to invest more resources on objective impairment tests, whatever those might look like.

By the end of the discussion, audience members were asked to vote on their preferred standpoint: 29 sided with Elliott in stating that the current driving-while-stoned law is a decent compromise; 20 sided with Ticer in stating that the current law should be revised according to more strict guidelines; and four remained undecided.

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Amber Taufen has been writing about people, places and things in Denver since 2005. She works as an editor, writer, and production and process guru out of her home office in the foothills.
Contact: Amber Taufen