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Stoned driving is uncharted territory

It was his green tongue that helped give away Jimmy Candido Flores when police arrived at the fatal accident scene near Chico, California. Flores had run off the road and killed a jogger, Carrie Jean Holliman, a 56-year-old Chico elementary school teacher. California Highway Patrol officers thought he might be impaired and conducted a sobriety examination. Flores' tongue had a green coat typical of heavy marijuana users and a later test showed he had pot, as well as other drugs, in his blood. After pleading guilty to manslaughter, Flores, a medical marijuana user, was sentenced to 10 years and eight months in prison.

Holliman's death and others like it across the nation hint at what experts say is an unrecognized crisis: stoned drivers. The most recent assessment by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, based on random roadside checks, found that 16.3 percent of all drivers nationwide at night were on various legal and illegal impairing drugs, half them high on marijuana.

In California alone, nearly 1,000 deaths and injuries each year are blamed directly on drugged drivers, according to CHP data, and law enforcement puts much of the blame on the rapid growth of medical marijuana use in the last decade. Fatalities in crashes where drugs were the primary cause and alcohol was not involved jumped 55 percent over the 10 years ending in 2009.

"Marijuana is a significant and important contributing factor in a growing number of fatal accidents," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy in the White House and former Seattle police chief. "There is no question, not only from the data but from what I have heard in my career as a law enforcement officer."

As the medical marijuana movement has gained speed - one-third of the states now allow such sales - federal officials are pursuing scientific research into the impairing effects of the drug. The issue is compounded by the lack of a national standard on the amount of the drug that drivers should be allowed to have in their blood. While 13 states have adopted zero-tolerance laws, 35 states including California have no formal standard, and instead rely on the judgment of police to determine impairment.

Marijuana is not nearly as well understood as alcohol, which has been the subject of statistical and medical research for decades. "A lot of effort has gone into the study of drugged driving and marijuana, because that is the most prevalent drug, but we are not nearly to the point where we are with alcohol," said Jeffrey P. Michael, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's impaired-driving director. "We don't know what level of marijuana impairs a driver."

Federal scientists envision a day when police could quickly swab saliva from drivers' mouths and determine whether they have an illegal level of marijuana, but that will require years of research. Until then, police are in the same position they were with drunk driving in the 1950s, basing arrests on their professional judgment of each driver's behavior and vital signs.

Chuck Hayes, national coordinator for the International Association of Chiefs of Police based in Washington, D.C., says the system works well to identify impaired drivers, and any future legal limit or medical test would be just another tool rather than a revolutionary change. "We are not concerned about levels or limits. We are concerned with impairment," Hayes said.
 

Written by: Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
Posted: Sep 20, 2012 by Lisa Callaham

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