Sobriety tests for marijuana a concern as voters weigh legalization
BOSTON >> With less than eight weeks until voters decide whether to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Massachusetts, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said Wednesday she is concerned that there is currently no way for police to test if a driver is under the influence of marijuana.
"One of the concerns with marijuana is, it is clear at some point, you are impaired ... but we don't have a test like we do for alcohol," Pollack said on Boston Herald Radio. "If the initiative passes, how are we going to be able to enforce the under the influence law?"
She added, "If we don't have a way of measuring it, the concern is that we may have more impaired driving. And between impaired driving and distracted driving these days, safety is a real concern for all of us."
Pollack said MassDOT will work with law enforcement, primarily the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, to create "the equivalent of a field sobriety test" so officers suspicious that a driver may have been using marijuana can determine whether someone is too impaired to be driving.
"We absolutely have a drinking and driving problem. We absolutely need to do more about it," Pollack said. "But at least when it comes to drinking and driving we have a very simple tool. You use a breathalyzer, you set a number and if your blood alcohol is above that number we can at least prosecute that person."
Supporters of Question 4, which would establish a regulatory and taxation structure for legal marijuana, have said that such concerns are not reason enough to oppose the ballot question.
"The concern about (operating under the influence) is unfounded because by the time this becomes fully implemented there will be a roadside device to test impairment," Will Luzier, a former assistant attorney general who now serves as campaign manager for the Yes on 4 ballot drive, told the News Service on Tuesday.
Researchers at Stanford University last week announced that they have developed and are testing a " potalyzer" -- a device that could detect THC molecules in saliva and report the level of THC in the saliva within three minutes.
Jim Borghesani, communications director for the Yes on 4 campaign, said Tuesday night during a debate hosted by WBZ-TV that such a device is expected to be available to police departments in 2017.
Borghesani argued that legalizing marijuana would actually hasten the development of such technology, and that defeating the November ballot question could stall its progress.
"Right now the only thing driving this technology forward is the fact that society is moving legalization forward," he said. "That is the exact kind of disruptive technology we need to give law enforcement the power they need to determine if anybody is driving intoxicated."
Sen. Jason Lewis, who headed up the Special Senate Committee on Marijuana and now is campaigning to defeat the ballot question, said he sees "no reason Massachusetts has to be a guinea pig" for marijuana impairment tests.
"There are people working on that technology. I say let them continue working on it," Lewis said during the WBZ debate. "Let Colorado figure this out and there's plenty of time for us to then learn from it."
But developing a test is only half of the issue. Once there is a way to test for marijuana impairment, the Legislature will have to determine what the legal limit for marijuana will be.
"It's going to be up to the Legislature to determine what the level of impairment should be for someone to be cited," Luzier said. "Frankly, the Legislature should have taken that action eight years ago when decriminalization happened. But they abdicated their responsibility."
The 2008 ballot law set fines as a penalty for possession up to one ounce of marijuana, but did not legalize possession of the substance.
Borgeshani, too, suggested that lawmakers should have already determined the legal limit for marijuana in drivers since the state has allowed adult possession of small amounts of the plant and operates a medical marijuana program.
"The Legislature did nothing on this, despite 2008 and 2012 when everybody said it was going to be mayhem on the roads, we can't measure this," he said. "Both passed overwhelmingly and the Legislature did nothing to forward this."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.