Florida not ready for Recreational Weed’s effects on traffic crashes, panel says

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Florida not ready for Recreational Weed’s effects on traffic crashes, panel says

Panel Urges Safety Measures for Possible Marijuana Legalization in Florida, Focusing on Impaired Driving and Traffic Safety.

If Florida voters get the opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana use next fall, the state will need to develop better ways to catch impaired drivers and avoid increases in traffic crashes.

That was the consensus of panelists who participated in a discussion of the likely effects of legalizing recreational weed on insurance-related issues last week at the Florida Chamber’s annual Insurance Summit in Orlando.

Voters could get an opportunity to decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana use in Florida next November if the state Supreme Court rules in favor of a ballot initiative backed by Trulieve, the state’s largest medicinal marijuana producer. At lease 60% of voters would have to approve the ballot question for it to be enacted.

Panelists at the Dec. 15 summit called for a range of stepped-up safety and enforcement measures, including establishing legal THC limits for drivers and developing a roadside sobriety test for THC, and requiring new vehicles to include camera-assisted crash-avoidance technology.

Chantel Lincoln, program director of the Drug Free America Foundation, a prohibitionist lobby created in 1976, said today’s marijuana is more potent and more dangerous than it used to be, with THC levels of commercially available weed running at about 20% compared to 3% to 4% in the 1970s.

THC levels in extracted forms of cannabis, including tinctures, dabs and edibles range from 50% to as high as 99%, Lincoln said.

She noted a “drastic rise” in hospitalizations, calls to poison control centers, and accidental childhood poisonings in states that approved recreational marijuana.

Daily use of high-potency cannabis, she said, can also lead to long-term psychosis, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and suicide.

Links have been suggested to those disorders in studies around the globe, but many studies also conclude that more research is needed to prove that the disorders can be caused by increased cannabis use.

Recent studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety comparing traffic crash rates before and after retail outlets began selling marijuana in Colorado, Washington, Nevada and Oregon showed traffic crash increases in all of the states except Oregon and a 4% combined average across the four states, Angela Eichelberger, the institute’s senior research scientist, told the panel.

According to a report released in December 2020, results of numerous recent studies have been “somewhat contradictory, with some studies showing driver impairment or culpability and others not.”

Driving and simulator studies have found that marijuana use by drivers is likely to result in decreased speed, fewer attempts to overtake, and increased following distance, the study found. But a 1986 study cited by the institute found slower reaction times and incorrect responses to emergency situations.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based alliance of health, law enforcement and insurance interests, called impaired driving a “growing public health problem on our roads.”

But she noted that the question of whether a driver is impaired by marijuana can be vexing to law enforcement agencies, which currently have no roadside test comparable to those that measure alcohol impairment.

A major reason is that THC can remain detectible in the blood and urine of a marijuana user for weeks, long after the psychoactive effects of the substance have diminished.

Chase said states that allow recreational marijuana use should develop a legal THC limit and what she called a “verified roadside technologies system” to test for the substance.

Yet, she acknowledged, “we don’t know how to do that yet.”

One problem, according to a 2017 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is that unlike with alcohol, the level of THC found in a user’s blood is not closely related to the degree of impairment the user exhibits. Some users can show high impairment levels when THC levels are low, while others can exhibit low impairment when THC levels are highest.

High THC levels taper off about an hour after cannabis is ingested through smoking, while peak impairment occurs after THC levels have declined more than 80% from their peak, the report said.

Shortcomings of all commonly used drug tests — whether measuring blood, hair, urine, sweat, or oral fluids — prevent them from legally establishing whether a driver was under the influence of cannabis when tested, the report said.

Increased legalization of recreational marijuana use might be helping law enforcement agencies evaluate impaired driver behaviors. In Gaitherburg, Maryland, the police department conducts “green labs” that encourage smokers to light up so officers can learn how to spot someone who’s too high to drive, the Minneapolis station KARE-TV reported in October.

Chase said the absence of marijuana-specific tests should not deter states from enforcing laws banning driving while impaired.

Instead of waiting for development of reliable THC tests, states like Florida should make greater use of “known solutions,” she said.

Those include increasing traditional methods of deterring drunken driving, since studies have found significant percentages of drivers involved in crashes who tested positive for marijuana also tested positive for alcohol, she said.

What she called “poly use” — pairing alcohol with other drugs — increases when states legalize recreational marijuana, Chase said.

She called for increased roadside sobriety field testing and reducing the blood alcohol limit that can lead to a DUI arrest and conviction from .08 to .05.

Speed limits should be reduced, Chase said, because drivers often don’t feel themselves speeding in today’s smoother running vehicles.

The government should require cars be built with advanced driver assistance systems, which use cameras and technology to avoid collisions, she said.

And law enforcement officers should be better trained to spot impaired drivers, she said.

“Where there is more training and enforcement, it does bring down crashes.” she said.

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Region: Florida

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