WASHINGTON — With acceptance of marijuana use growing nationally, a panel of U.S. House lawmakers on Thursday tried to figure out how authorities could better police the nation’s highways, railways and airways for the threat posed by the potential of more “drugged drivers.”
But by the end of the nearly two-hour hearing, answers and agreement were in short supply — other than the shared admission that more research was needed. “We need a lot more science here,” said U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.
In particular, lawmakers and witnesses debated the overall danger posed by stoned drivers, as well as potential methods that law enforcement officials could use to test for impairment.
“We have no standard test for marijuana for drivers,” said U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who has called several hearings on marijuana. But he argued there was an inherent danger in other states following Colorado and Washington state in legalizing recreational sales of the drug. “We are going to have a lot more people stoned on the highway and there will be consequences,” Mica said.
Research on marijuana usage on driving has been limited, as well as the degree to which legalization could impact those figures.
One 2012 survey reported that 10.3 million Americans had admitted to driving “under the influence of illicit drugs” in the preceding year. The same survey, conducted by health officials, also found that in 2012 marijuana was the “most commonly used illicit drug” with 18.9 million “past month” users.
Meanwhile, incidents of drunk driving are heavily documented. Connolly cited one figure that found that more than 10,000 people were killed in 2010 as a result of “alcohol-impaired crashes.” That accounted for “31 percent, nearly one-third, of all traffic-related deaths in the United States,” Connolly said.
Added Jeff Michael, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in prepared remarks: “Available evidence indicates that alcohol is the most common source of driver impairment … [But] much more research is needed to gain a good understanding of the effects of drugs other than alcohol on safe driving and their role in crashes.”
More answers on drugged driving, however, could be coming. Michael said the agency currently was “looking specifically at Washington [state] before and after legal sales [of marijuana] to assess what effect that might have.”
Meanwhile Mica suggested that U.S. authorities take a closer look at handheld devices, used in Europe, which administer swab tests to determine whether “anyone has used marijuana within [the previous] four hours,” he said.
In the meantime, he lamented current U.S. limitations. “We have no standard. We have no acceptable test. We have no way of telling if people are impaired,” Mica said. “Most of the data we’re getting right now is from fatalities.”