DENVER – Roadside marijuana tests are likely to become as normal as hand-held Breathalyzers that analyze a driver’s blood-alcohol content.
Several companies across the nation are working on the technology, including in Colorado, where Wheat Ridge-based Lifeloc Technologies received a $250,000 grant from the state last year to create roadside technology that can be used by law enforcement to immediately detect marijuana in a suspected impaired driver’s system. The company itself is investing many more dollars into the technology.
The issue has proved to be more complicated for marijuana, as the drug lingers in the body for several weeks, often long after a person has used it. Any technology used to prove impairment must detect only the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, which is Delta-9 THC. The science connecting marijuana to impairment is also as hazy as the cannabis smoke itself, making it difficult to determine a specific limit.
“It’s one thing to be able to do it in the lab, it’s another to be able to do it roadside. We’re trying to make it as simple as possible,” said Gurumurthi Ravishankar, president of Lifeloc. “There are some challenges in terms of being able to get enough of a breath sample. ... So, we have to come up with a reliable and accurate way of collecting adequate samples.”
State lawmakers in 2013 passed a law that sets marijuana impairment for driving at 5 nanograms of THC. Controversy still swirls over the limit, with cannabis advocates suggesting that lawmakers chose an arbitrary threshold.
Still, that is the framework law enforcement has to work with. In the first quarter of the year, Colorado Sate Patrol reported 87 marijuana DUI citations issued on roads they patrol. There were 89 citations issued in the first quarter of last year, indicating a relatively unchanged number. Marijuana represented 16 percent of DUI/DUID citations in the first quarter of 2015.
Trooper Nate Reid, spokesman for State Patrol, said troopers currently use standard field sobriety tests without the availability of marijuana-specific roadside tests. The State Patrol is currently training its troopers on roadside impairment driving enforcement, including different drug categories and effects on the body.
The most common initial charge is “driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or both.” The charge is not specific until trial and after testing has come back from the lab.
“Troopers rely on their training and experience to make decisions to arrest based on probable cause to do so, even without any roadside tests,” Reid said. “Troopers have been arresting people for driving under the influence of many substances for a long time, long before marijuana was made legal.”
On the federal level, U.S. Reps. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, and Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, are working on legislation that would expand the definition of an impaired driver to include marijuana. The LUCID Act would create incentives for states with legalized marijuana to enact laws prohibiting marijuana-impaired driving. Unlike previous proposals, it would not mandate a specific measurement that states must use to test for marijuana-impaired driving.
But marijuana advocates worry that lawmakers are in search of a solution without a problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported earlier this year that there is no evidence that marijuana use leads to a higher risk of getting in a traffic crash. Researchers, however, said additional studies are needed to develop definitive data on the subject.
Paul Armentano, deputy director for national marijuana advocacy group NORML, has been studying marijuana as it relates to driving for about 12 years.
“Any number in regard to THC in blood is an arbitrary number,” Armentano said, pointing out that alcohol is unique in that there is clear science that links impairment to blood-alcohol content.
“Alcohol is unique because we have this data, and we know that maximal concentration of alcohol in blood is positively associated with greater behavioral impairment of performance,” he said. “We don’t have this association for marijuana.”