Our Opinion: Driving bill a must before pot cafe pilot

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Horse first, then cart.

That's how it should usually go, and that's the view of Gov. Charlie Baker when it comes to the prospect of social consumption sites for cannabis — safety first.

Last week, Baker held a news conference along with Mothers Against Drunk Driving National President Helen Witty to call for passage of his impaired driving legislation ahead of a pot cafe pilot, after the state Cannabis Control Commission in September voted to move closer to a pilot program. ("Baker urges against pot cafe pilot without impaired driving bill," State House News Service, Oct. 7.) The Eagle reported earlier this year that North Adams is one of a handful of municipalities eligible for the pilot ("As state eyes pot cafe pilot, North Adams could be a participant," Eagle, May 28).

Baker and Witty were joined at the news conference by CCC member Britte McBride and Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael — an encouraging example of law enforcement, elected officials, regulators and advocates working together toward adopting common-sense safety protocols to keep pace with the Bay State's burgeoning marijuana industry.

The governor's bill, based on recommendations from the Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence created after the state legalized marijuana, would "equalize treatment of alcohol and drugs with respect to driving under the influence," according to Baker.

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Even for those most skeptical of drug laws' efficacy, this should be a no-brainer. Thanks in large part to advocacy groups like MADD, application of laws targeting alcohol-impaired driving beginning in the late 1970s and '80s coincided with a significant drop in alcohol-linked motor vehicle fatalities, even as the number of licensed drivers on America's roads increased. According to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, the rate of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities per 100,000 in the U.S. decreased 63 percent between 1982 and 2017, including an 80 percent reduction in drunken-driving fatalities among drivers under 21 and a 16 percent drop in total traffic deaths over the same period.

There is no reason to think that laws targeting marijuana-impaired driving would not have a similar effect on stemming vehicular carnage. This is especially worth considering should the state move forward with the proposed pilot for social consumption sites, where people would travel to and fro in order to consume cannabis. According to the governor's office, marijuana was the second-most prevalent drug (after alcohol) found in the systems of those killed in Massachusetts motor vehicle crashes between 2013 and 2017. This coincides with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data; a study conducted by the agency in 2015 reported 9.4 percent of weekend nighttime drivers testing positive for THC, the principal psychoactive component of cannabis.

It behooves Massachusetts to get this right — both to prevent needless tragedy on our communities' roadways and to serve as an example of proactive sense-making on public safety as the trend of legalization inevitably continues nationwide. (While they're at it, perhaps lawmakers should also heed the call of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for states to lower the blood alcohol content threshold for DUI to 0.05 percent.)

If communities like North Adams are going to participate in a pot cafe pilot that would ostensibly make cannabis use a more driving-adjacent activity, then the governor is correct that the only responsible tack is to, at a minimum, adapt our laws to this new phenomenon. Proceeding otherwise would be putting the cart before the horse in a most dangerous way.

We urge the passage of Baker's driving safety bill, H 71.


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