STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — New laws pertaining to marijuana use while driving have spurred big concerns among some public officials and advocates on Staten Island.
As part of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, law enforcement officials in April met with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to discuss cannabis legalization in New York and its potential impact on traffic safety.
“What we’ve been given by state legislators is a law that virtually encourages using marijuana in vehicles and while driving,” District Attorney Michael E. McMahon said.
One concern held by MADD and members of local law enforcement is the inability of police officers to quickly and effectively measure a person’s intoxication level during a traffic stop.
While the accuracy of a breathalyzer has long been accepted by scientists and lawmakers as a fair assessment of someone’s level of alcohol impairment, experts say the same level of proven technology doesn’t exist for cannabis.
“Until that’s implemented and we can consistently measure THC levels, it’s our biggest concern,” said Alyssa Cacoperdo, a victims’ services specialist with MADD NY/NJ.
HOW DANGEROUS IS IT?
Cacoperdo said she’s concerned that many people she speaks with about the law don’t recognize that “the use of marijuana is going to be as detrimental as it can be.”
In Colorado, the number of annual deaths linked to crashes caused by marijuana impairment from 2016 through 2019 totaled 45, 33, 37 and 49, respectively.
A 2009 study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that “most marijuana-intoxicated drivers show only modest impairments on actual road tests” and “experienced smokers who drive on a set course show almost no functional impairment under the influence of marijuana.”
“Many investigators have suggested that the reason why marijuana does not result in an increased crash rate in laboratory tests despite demonstrable neurophysiologic impairments is that, unlike drivers under the influence of alcohol, who tend to underestimate their degree of impairment, marijuana users tend to overestimate their impairment, and consequently employ compensatory strategies,” the study says.
Conversely, a 2013 study examining driving tests simulating impairment from marijuana found that regular cannabis users displayed more driving errors than non-regular cannabis users.
Researchers in both studies reported the combination of weed and alcohol notably increases impairment levels, regardless of how frequently a person consumes cannabis.
NEW, POLARIZING LAWS
If a driver on Staten Island is suspected of being intoxicated by drugs, an officer trained as a drug recognition expert could be called to the scene.
However, providing enough of those officers to handle the number of suspected marijuana-related stops would prove “incredibly expensive and time consuming,” explained Assistant District Attorney Frank Prospero, who serves as chief of the Vehicular Crimes Unit.
And so the lack of “breathalyzer” and/or available expert makes for an uphill battle in prosecuting such cases, Prospero said.
Similar issues have been experienced in California, where cannabis was legalized about five years ago.
While blood remains the forensic standard to measure intoxication in that state, it sometimes takes as long as two hours after a traffic stop to get the driver’s blood drawn, according to a 2018 report by the Los Angeles Times.
Nearly 70% of the psychoactive THC in a person’s bloodstream might vanish within an hour, which experts said could weaken a DWI case.
If an officer suspects marijuana use in a moving vehicle, the officer can issue a summons to appear in court, similar to a speeding ticket. It’s legal for a person at least 21 years old to possess three ounces or less in their vehicle.
The law doesn’t address a punishment for a minor in possession of the drug.
Prior to the new legislation, it was a misdemeanor to use or possess marijuana in the vehicle — charges subject to remain on a person’s criminal record.
SOCIAL JUSTICE REFORM
The new policies fall in line with some state lawmakers’ efforts to reduce what data has shown to be a disproportionate number of marijuana-related arrests of Black and Latino New Yorkers.
Those arrests too often started with either the driver being profiled, or a minor traffic violation for which in many cases a white driver wouldn’t be pulled over, social justice groups say.
Data also has shown disproportionately harsher sentences for minorities facing marijuana-related charges, resulting in what activists say are criminal records for young people in minority communities that proved detrimental to their future.
McMahon said while he agrees that minority communities have been negatively impacted over the years by the nation’s war on drugs, he also has a duty to protect all Staten Island residents — in a borough ranked highest in the nation when it comes to pedestrians struck by vehicles.
“There should be an absolute law against smoking and even possessing marijuana while operating a vehicle,” McMahon said. “It’s mind boggling to me … we can’t find a way to say ‘you can’t drive while high.’”