Curbing Colorado’s pot-impaired drivers
The Gazette, Colorado Springs
Research findings that made news last week about the difficulty of developing a breath test for pot-intoxicated drivers must have been welcomed by a couple of narrow interests — the criminal-defense bar and Big Marijuana itself. The former, because it might make it harder to convict — “My client seemed high as a kite? Prove it!” — and the latter, because the industry’s well-oiled lobby might have an easier time, for now, maintaining the fiction that its cash crop isn’t behind surging traffic fatalities. As for the rest of Colorado, there’s little comfort in having fewer tools for law enforcement to curb the mounting threat that marijuana poses to life and limb on our state’s roads. “People are dying on Colorado roads at a rate we have not seen in decades,” Col. Matthew Packard, chief of the Colorado State Patrol, announced at a news conference in July. “It is just appalling to think about how regular this loss of life has become.” Packard said the 754 lives lost in traffic crashes statewide last year reflect a 12% surge over Colorado’s 672 traffic deaths in 2022 and represent a 41-year high. And, speaking of “high” — though it’s no laughing matter — there can be no question that marijuana’s debilitating effect on motorists is in part responsible. Pot use in fact is taking a big toll on our roads. An extensive analysis of 26,000 impaired-driving cases in Colorado in 2019 showed 45% of drivers tested positive for more than one substance, according to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice. The most common combination was alcohol with THC — the psychoactive chemical in marijuana — followed by alcohol combined with other drugs, the analysis found. Such data typically is derived in part from blood, urine and hair samples collected well after the fact of an impaired driver’s arrest. But those tests cannot be conducted in the field. That’s where breath analysis comes in. While use of breathalyzers by law enforcement is standard procedure in conducting roadside sobriety tests for alcohol use, nailing down the science of breath analysis for THC has proved elusive. As The Gazette reported last Wednesday, a preliminary study by researchers at the University of Colorado-boulder suggests developing a breathalyzer test for cannabis users will be a challenge. “In our pilot research, we found that in regular cannabis users, their breath around an hour after use is not looking a whole lot different than their baseline measure on days that they haven’t used at all,” Cinnamon Bidwell, a CU Boulder professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, said in a news release. “That suggests that this isn’t going to be easy, and a lot more careful research needs to be done to get it right.” That’s frustrating. But we can rest assured the State Patrol as well as local law enforcement across the state are using other approved measures for determining driver impairment when it comes to marijuana use. The statistical correlation between the carnage on Colorado’s roadways and the spread of retail marijuana’s availability since legalization in 2012 is too stark to leave any doubt. And law officers are seeing the result when they pull over suspected, impaired drivers — as well as when the respond to traffic tragedies. Recent state and local sales-tax collections suggest pot sales have been in decline, and we welcome the development. Let’s hope it is reflected in a similar decline in deaths on Colorado roads.