During this past New Year’s holiday, the Los Angeles Police Department utilized a new portable oral test that is able to check for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs in a person’s system. In their attempt to start aggressively enforcing impaired driving laws, they decided to use this test at New Years’ checkpoints even though the test had only been used about 50 times prior. Prosecutors hope that this eight-minute oral fluids test will eventually become an effective indicator of impairment of drugs, though they have yet to use any results from these tests as evidence in their cases.
Although this test does have the capability of checking for the presence of THC, which is the component most identified with the use of marijuana and which causes the psychoactive effects of marijuana, it does not test for impairment from THC. However, since the legalization of recreational marijuana in several states, experts have struggled to determine an appropriate level of use that would consistently label a person to be “impaired.”
It is undoubtedly important for law makers to be presented with research that helps to determine at what level of THC presence that will cause a person’s impairment. Without this, the current legal terminology of “under the influence” is extremely subjective. Unlike the research with alcohol that determined that there is a strong correlation between impairment and blood alcohol levels higher than 0.08, the research with THC levels are still inconclusive. Both neuroscientists and pharmacologists are having difficulties determining to what extent the drug can impair a person’s ability to drive as well as an appropriate way to measure it. Private companies are currently working on a breathalyzer to test for impairment similar to that used in alcohol related cases, however, the results are still not as definitive as the tests used to determine impairment of alcohol.
In the interim, the Legislature’s Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving is recommending mandatory drug testing for stoned drivers under the threat of license suspension. Law enforcement insists that this is the best way to keep stoned drivers off the road.
The threat of losing one’s license may be an effective way to keep stoned drivers off the streets, but at this point in time, it also comes with a multitude of issues, including those that make the tests unconstitutional. For one, it is still unconstitutional to force a blood draw or saliva test without a warrant.
An additional issue is that unlike alcohol that metabolizes fairly quickly and at a measurable rate, THC can last in one’s body for days, even weeks. The “recommended” tests may undoubtedly accurately measure the amount of THC in the body, but there is still no measurement for impairment. ACLU Field Director Matt Allen, who is a member of the special commission stated, “We want to ensure that if motorists are faced with penalties such as losing their license for not taking a drug test that that test is scientifically proven to measure impairment.” However, he was the lone “no” vote on the recommendation.
The scientific community is undoubtedly working on the answer. Hopefully sooner rather than later, the public will be presented with a fairly accurate level of what impairment under the influence of marijuana means. Without it, it is not only law enforcement who is at a loss for efficiently assessing impairment, but all responsible users who lack a point of reference of this newly legal drug to make sure that they are not inadvertently putting the public in danger. Until then, we cannot arbitrarily punish people who have THC in their system, but are not impaired by it.