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Stoned driving is uncharted territory

Experts say they don't know what level of marijuana impairs a driver, but statistics show that fatal crashes involving drugged drivers have jumped. Law enforcement puts much of the blame on the growth of medical marijuana use.

July 02, 2011|By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
  • Officers look for signs of drug impairment. Without a standard in most states for the amount of pot allowable in a driver's system, police administer a lengthy 12-point examination.
Officers look for signs of drug impairment. Without a standard in most states… (Joe McHugh, CHP )

It was his green tongue that helped give away Jimmy Candido Flores when police arrived at the fatal accident scene near Chico.

Flores had run off the road and killed a jogger, Carrie Jean Holliman, a 56-year-old Chico elementary school teacher. California Highway Patrol officers thought he might be impaired and conducted a sobriety examination. Flores' tongue had a green coat typical of heavy marijuana users and a later test showed he had pot, as well as other drugs, in his blood.

After pleading guilty to manslaughter, Flores, a medical marijuana user, was sentenced in February to 10 years and 8 months in prison.

Holliman's death and others like it across the nation hint at what experts say is an unrecognized crisis: stoned drivers.

The most recent assessment by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, based on random roadside checks, found that 16.3% of all drivers nationwide at night were on various legal and illegal impairing drugs, half them high on marijuana.

In California alone, nearly 1,000 deaths and injuries each year are blamed directly on drugged drivers, according to CHP data, and law enforcement puts much of the blame on the rapid growth of medical marijuana use in the last decade. Fatalities in crashes where drugs were the primary cause and alcohol was not involved jumped 55% over the 10 years ending in 2009.

"Marijuana is a significant and important contributing factor in a growing number of fatal accidents," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy in the White House and former Seattle police chief. "There is no question, not only from the data but from what I have heard in my career as a law enforcement officer."

As the medical marijuana movement has gained speed — one-third of the states now allow such sales — federal officials are pursuing scientific research into the impairing effects of the drug.

The issue is compounded by the lack of a national standard on the amount of the drug that drivers should be allowed to have in their blood. While 13 states have adopted zero-tolerance laws, 35 states including California have no formal standard, and instead rely on the judgment of police to determine impairment.

Even the most cautious approach of zero tolerance is fraught with complex medical issues about whether residual low levels of marijuana can impair a driver days after the drug is smoked. Marijuana advocates say some state and federal officials are trying to make it impossible for individuals to use marijuana and drive legally for days or weeks afterward.

Marijuana is not nearly as well understood as alcohol, which has been the subject of statistical and medical research for decades.

"A lot of effort has gone into the study of drugged driving and marijuana, because that is the most prevalent drug, but we are not nearly to the point where we are with alcohol," said Jeffrey P. Michael, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's impaired-driving director. "We don't know what level of marijuana impairs a driver."

A $6-million study in Virginia Beach, Va., is attempting to remove any doubt that users of pot and other drugs are more likely to crash. Teams of federal researchers go to accident scenes and ask drivers to voluntarily provide samples of their blood. They later return to the same location, at the same time and on the same day of the week, asking two random motorists not involved in crashes for a blood sample.

The project aims to collect 7,500 blood samples to show whether drivers with specific blood levels of drugs are more likely to crash than those without the drugs, said John Lacey, a researcher at the nonprofit Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

In other projects, test subjects are being given marijuana to smoke and then examined under high-powered scanners or put in advanced driving simulators to gauge how it affects their brains and their ability to drive.

Federal scientists envision a day when police could quickly swab saliva from drivers' mouths and determine whether they have an illegal level of marijuana, but that will require years of research. Until then, police are in the same position they were with drunk driving in the 1950s, basing arrests on their professional judgment of each driver's behavior and vital signs.

If police suspect a driver is stoned, they now administer a lengthy 12-point examination. The driver must walk a straight line and stand on one leg, estimate the passage of 30 seconds and have pupils, blood pressure and pulse checked.

Chuck Hayes, national coordinator for the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police based in Washington, D.C., says the system works well to identify impaired drivers, and any future legal limit or medical test would be just another tool rather than a revolutionary change.

"We are not concerned about levels or limits. We are concerned with impairment," Hayes said.

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