Newly introduced legislation seeks to ban behavior not addressed by California’s new pot law: Toking while driving.
It’s currently illegal to have an “open container” of weed in a vehicle. It’s also illegal to drive while high.
But there’s a technical loophole in these existing laws, because they don’t address actual usage while driving. Nor do they define whether a pipe, joint or edible are considered “open containers.” That’s akin to saying you can’t have an open can of Bud in the car, and you certainly can’t be drunk, but it’s OK to take sips while behind the wheel.
“This legislation makes our laws for smoking while driving consistent with drinking while driving,” said Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, who introduced the bill on Thursday with Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell.
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“With New Year’s Eve approaching, it’s important to remind Californians that impaired driving can be deadly,” Hill said in a prepared statement.
The proposed Senate Bill 65 would make it an infraction for anyone to smoke or consume marijuana in any form while driving a vehicle or piloting a boat or plane, consistent with the law on alcohol.
Marijuana and driving are challenging issues for law enforcement. While it’s clearly dangerous to drive while stoned — and perhaps a distraction to smoke a joint or pipe– there is not yet a quick, effective and accurate roadside test for determining marijuana impairment.
Earlier this month, Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, a 28-year-veteran with the California Highway Patrol, introduced a bill intended to give police officers the right to use saliva-based roadside testing devices on drivers they believe are under the influence of marijuana.
Unlike rules about blood alcohol levels, the bill does not prescribe a legal limit. And law enforcement will still be required to prove a driver was impaired based off of field sobriety tests. The saliva test will be used to confirm that a drug is present in the driver’s body.
Blood or urine tests can’t be conducted on the side of the road. And they aren’t necessarily a good test of impairment. That’s because drivers become impaired at different levels of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive substance, in the blood. Depending on the individual, drivers with relatively high levels of marijuana in their system might not be impaired, while others with low levels may be unsafe behind the wheel.
And THC can be stored in body fat for days or weeks after use, when the user is no longer impaired.
Fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana doubled in Washington after the state legalized the drug, according to the latest research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Deadly accidents also have increased in Colorado. Since the state legalized cannabis, marijuana-related traffic deaths have increased by 154 percent from 2006 to 2014, from 37 to 94, with drivers testing positive for marijuana. Earlier this month, a Grand Junction, CO, man was sentenced to 10 months in jail for driving while high on marijuana and causing a crash that killed a motorcyclist.
It’s unknown how many of these crashes involved marijuana, specifically, because other substances were often also involved.
Downtown Denver now features a 28-foot-tall glow-in-the-dark billboard, resembling a cross between a giant joint and a mangled car, as part of a statewide effort against smoking marijuana and driving high.
California’s law enforcement officers now have limited options if a driver is spotted smoking or ingesting marijuana products, according to Hill.
The new bill also provides judges with the option to penalize the offense as an infraction or a misdemeanor.
“Impaired driving endangers us all,” said Hill, “and this bill will give law enforcement and judges more tools to crack down on smoking pot or drinking while driving.”