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Weed Whackers

Feds go after marijuana users with proposed drugged-driving law

By Joy Lanzendorfer

As anyone who has ever taken a drug test knows, some drugs stay in the body longer than others. Marijuana, for example, can stay in the body for days and even weeks after the drug's intoxication wears off. For that reason, it's harder for law-enforcement officials to test drivers for current marijuana intoxication than it is for alcohol. A positive marijuana test might indicate use that day--or last month.

But that may not matter if recently proposed federal legislation, the Drug Impaired Driving Research and Prevention Act (HR 4159), is passed by Congress. The bill is the first step to create nationwide "per se," or zero tolerance, drugged-driving laws. Under the kind of laws the bill promotes, anyone caught driving with illegal drugs in his or her body--whether the person is impaired by the drug at the time or not--could be convicted of DUID (driving under the influence of drugs).

"Say you had an accident, and the police went to your home, found a couple of beer bottles in your trash, and said, 'Aha, you're guilty of driving under the influence,'" says Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for NORML, a pro-marijuana group. "That's the sort of scenario this legislation proposes for drug users. It's thoroughly appalling."

HR 4159 is co-authored by representatives Jon Porter (R-Nev.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). It is a combination of two separate bipartisan bills the pair had previously introduced. The new bill has been tacked on as an amendment to the Transportation Equity Act now being reviewed by Congress.

The legislation would give the federal government $7.2 million to create a model for states to use when developing drugged driving laws. The model would define a "crime of drug-impaired driving" as a person operating a vehicle when "any detectable amount of a controlled substance is present in the person's body."

"It's the first time in history that the federal government has addressed drugged driving," says Porter spokesman Adam Mayberry. "Porter is trying to raise awareness that drugged driving is an epidemic. The bill is needed because most of the states don't have policies about drugged driving."

Almost all states have laws dealing with drugged driving, but most of them, including California, have effect-based laws, which means that to be convicted, a person must be proven impaired and incapable of driving safely. But marijuana intoxication can be difficult to detect with traditional field sobriety tests, since the drug's effects are more subtle than alcohol. For example, a 1993 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that marijuana's "adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small." Many independent studies have come to similar conclusions.

Marijuana activists say the law specifically targets pot smokers because, under per se laws, the very nature of cannabis makes the user more susceptible to a DUID.

"Drug tests are more sensitive to marijuana," says Gieringer. "Not only does it stay in the system for longer than alcohol or opiates, it's very hard to come up with any close numerical correlation between cannabis and impairment. This is just a case of antidrug nuts in Congress trying to sneak this law through."

Activists also question whether there is an epidemic of drugged-driving accidents. While the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 11 million people drove under the influence of illegal drugs that year, other studies suggest that that doesn't necessarily mean those people were causing accidents.

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, who represents Sonoma and Marin counties, is against HR 4159 because of the problems it poses for marijuana smokers.

"As the recent tragic drunk-driving incidents in Sonoma County remind us, we must do everything possible to ensure the safety of our roads," she says. "Recent legislation introduced in the House of Representatives, however, may not be the best solution. It could lead to someone using marijuana for medicinal purposes to be convicted of DUI even though they used marijuana days before the arrest and were not impaired at the time of arrest."

Congressman Mike Thompson, who represents Napa and parts of Sonoma counties, among others, says he's still considering his position on the bill.

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From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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