LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Summit on drugged driving urges state to slow down marijuana legalization

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

New Jersey is poised to legalize recreational marijuana next year, but speakers at the AAA Summit on Impaired Driving urged an audience of some 300 cops, lobbyists and advocates to slow the legislative process down.

“This is a big deal. We’re legalizing a drug for fun without really understanding how to manage the highway safety implications of it. Not to mention all the other political and social issues that come with it,” said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA.

Nationally, the number of traffic fatalities involving drug-impaired drivers eclipsed alcohol-impaired drivers in 2015, according to Kansas Trooper Sean Hankins. His state borders Colorado, which legalized weed in 2014. Kansas saw traffic fatalities spike 20 percent last year, he said.

“We have a lot of weed in our state, thanks to Colorado. It’s not a coincidence we have increased number of fatality crashes, because the legalization of marijuana is occurring all across this country,” said Hankins.

But legalization advocates disagree, arguing causation isn’t correlation.

“What it says is, someone at some point in time, like last month or so, used cannabis. And at some point in time was involved in a fatal accident. So they’ve seen an increase in people using cannabis, and fatal accidents, but not a correlation between,” said Bill Caruso who is on the steering committee of the advocacy group New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform.

Police trying to enforce driving laws can’t give a breathalyzer test for marijuana, but last year Kansas studied a portable drug testing device made by Alere that detects recent marijuana use in oral fluids. It’s non-invasive and doesn’t require medical personnel to administer. The device scored a more than 80 percent accuracy rate and could at least help officers evaluate drivers.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have, if that officer feels, ‘OK, this guy may not be capable of safely operating,’ an additional tool they know they can use roadside to give them some sort of an idea preemptively what might be impairing them at the roadside evaluation,” said Hankins.

Officials from Colorado agreed and advised New Jersey that legal weed will change the culture here and so rules, regulations and protocols should be in place before that happens. Traffic cops need specific training.

“It’s making sure they’re making good decisions. That they’re not arresting people who shouldn’t be, just because they smell like it, or they’ve recently used it,” said Chris Halsor, an attorney and founder of Understanding Legal Marijuana, LLC.

“I think the culture in Colorado has changed, that without the taboo, more people have access to it than before. I think it is a very high-grade product, that people may not be used to having, and I can get my message to the general public through the industry through the dispensaries,” said Glenn Davis, a highway safety manager in the Office of Transportation Safety and Risk Management at the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The public needs to be educated, too.

Colorado’s launched some funny, safe-driving PSAs that show getting high can impair performance. Meanwhile, agencies continue to gather data about marijuana’s impact on safety and people.

“It’s so very important that this is not a knee jerk reaction with incoming Governor-elect Murphy. We need to really take a look at this. This is going to affect all aspects of our community,” said Mary Pat Angelini, CEO of the Preferred Behavioral Health Group.

That message should be appreciated by the governor-elect. Murphy has said he wants to study other states’ experiences with legalizing marijuana before signing a law in New Jersey.