Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Pot, Impairment and Car Crashes

I served on a panel at the Colorado workers' compensation conference this spring. IT was a tremendous program in an ideal setting at the base of Pikes Peak. Believe it or not, the subject of Marijuana came up (In Colorado, who'd have thought). Marijuana is a subject about which there have been multiple musings in this blog. A few of those are:

Medical Marijuana.
Marijuana May be a Problem, You Think?
So Federal Law Matters in Colorado.
What will the Next 30 Years Teach Us?

In another post, Measuring Marijuana Intoxication, I discussed some issues with the way marijuana affects people, and the distinctions it has from alcohol. Alcohol presence can be measured more readily, even if scientists tend to believe that the thresholds such as .08 BAC are convenient but not necessarily scientifically definitive of impairment. Despite the scientific questions, laws across the country have defined presumptions of impairment with that blood alcohol presence (.08) and others. 

This spring, national public radio (NPR) reported that "drug-impaired driving is a growing concern." Despite that, "its actual impact is still difficult to measure." There is evidence that drug-impaired driving is even more prevalent that alcohol-impaired. But, in determining causation of accidents, NPR reports that  "findings cannot show that drugs are responsible for more deaths on the roadways than alcohol," and the reason is tied to the difficulty with measuring drug impairment. 

A recent "insurance study" reported by Fox News, "links increased car crash claims to legalized recreational marijuana." Keep in mind that there is no such think as "legal marijuana." Marijuana remains illegal under federal law in this country, and no state can legalize it. The states can, and some have, elected not to criminalize possession or use under state law. The states can also elect not to enforce federal law. But states can no more legalize marijuana than they can legalize kidnapping or counterfeiting. Those are also against federal law. 

This insurance study cannot link accidents to drug use or impairment either. Perhaps for the same reasons cited by NPR regarding impairment generally. What the insurance study found, however, is that "it would appear, not to anyone's surprise, that the use of marijuana contributes to crashes." And, one highway safety industry spokesperson noted that "while we have proven countermeasures, proven strategies for reducing alcohol impaired driving, there are a lot of unanswered questions about marijuana and driving." 

Some claim impairment can be effectively measured. One University of Massachusetts professor reported by The Boston Globe has "created and self-funded DRUID," which stands for "driving under the influence of drugs." It is an app that asks "users to tap the screen in certain places when they see different shapes." There are also tests for stopping a stopwatch at 60 seconds and using the finger to follow a moving object on the tablet screen. Although there are no peer review studies to validate the relevance, Professor Milburn recommends the app for those who wish to avoid impaired driving. I wonder as I write this if the app could be adapted to have some kind of fruit or birds involved (gazing into space and pondering).  

A PhD candidate at the University of Akron has recently announces another tool, which operates from a sample of saliva. This device was reported on Cleveland.com (Ohio, a state that has not yet de-criminalized marijuana). It is called a Cannibuster, and it measures the "levels of THC," which the developer notes is "the active ingredient in marijuana." Of course, there is evidence that THC is one of "over 400 chemical entities of which more than 60 are cannabinoid compounds" in cannabis. See NCBI

There remains much to be done. There are perceptions that drug use is contributing to accidents. Police who are directed by law to ignore possession and distribution of federally controlled substances may nonetheless have to deal with those who drive under its influence and perhaps contribute to or cause accidents. An effective and reliable method for measuring impairment is perhaps needed in order for their to be consistency. Of course, it is possible that the other debate, whether such standards are scientifically efficacious, should be had instead. 

Much to ponder in the world of marijuana; a world that seems to become larger everyday.

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