Medical marijuana will be legal in Ohio starting this September.
While I support legalization — including for recreational use — I can’t help but wonder whether my family will be in more danger on the roads.
We already know what danger alcohol poses for drivers: There were 1,094 fatal crashes last year in our state and intoxication was involved in 405 crash deaths.
In Ohio, 2.2 percent of adults admitted to driving after drinking too much, which is higher than the national average. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say drunk driving caused 3,637 deaths in Ohio between 2003 and 2012.
About one in three traffic deaths nationwide involves a drunk driver. Even though drunk driving rates and deaths have gone down in recent years, millions of drivers still get behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol.
When pushing for legalization, activists in other states actually promoted cannabis as a safer alternative to alcohol —and science suggests they might be right.
Pot’s criminalization has its roots in racism against Mexican immigrants and black people, not in medical research. “You want to know what this was really all about?” asked John Ehrlichman, domestic policy chief to President Richard Nixon. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Now attitudes toward cannabis are rapidly changing in Ohio and beyond. But they still might not be entirely based in fact, which presents a problem.
For example, a study last summer found that 72 percent of Colorado cannabis users thought it was safer to drive under the influence of pot than alcohol. The same survey found more than half of respondents drove within two hours of using marijuana — and felt they could do so safely.
The Colorado Department of Transportation has spent $1 million in the past year to convince the public that driving after using is unsafe. I’d be wholly unsurprised to see the same massive public education effort rolled out by the Ohio Department of Transportation this fall.
It might be wishful thinking, but my suspicion is that medical marijuana card-holders in Ohio will be especially careful at first about driving under the influence. It’s a surety that their degree of control will slip over time.
Let’s eliminate one myth right now: It will remain illegal in Ohio to drive under the influence, even if you have a legal prescription for marijuana.
But there exists an enormous gray area in Ohio law about how that and other aspects of legalized use will be policed. I’m left with many questions:
• The effects of cannabis vary more between people than they do with alcohol and people absorb THC at far different rates. You can’t judge how impaired you are, so what kind of rule-of-thumb do we use to determine if you’re OK to drive? It’s relatively easy to figure out how many drinks is your limit for alcohol impairment given your gender, weight, and the drink’s proof. That kind of metric simply does not exist for pot.
• Some states, such as Washington and Colorado, have set a limit of five nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood as the legal limit for driving. With no roadside breathalyzer test for THC, what standards will police use to determine impairment? Will blood tests put an undue burden on crime labs and taxpayers?
• If you have an open beer in your car, you can be charged. Will the same be true if you have an open medical marijuana container or package?
• During a traffic stop, if a police officer sees your prescription in the car, could that be construed as probable cause for a search?
• How far will your affirmation defense against pot possession charges stretch if you have a prescription? That defense will be limited but is sure to be tested.
• Concealed carry permit-holders are required to immediately, upon being stopped by police, inform officers they have a firearm. Will medical marijuana users be required to do disclose they have a prescription, and does that violate medical privacy laws?
• There are indications that people who have a legal marijuana prescription could be barred from owning or possessing a firearm. Will that hold up to scrutiny under the Second Amendment?
• Will it be legal to use your medicine in public? It is illegal to do so in other states.
• How will schools change the way marijuana is addressed in the curriculum? There are a great number of conflicting studies about pot’s benefits and drawbacks — can teachers accurately navigate their results? If Grandma has a prescription, will we still tell kids marijuana is a gateway drug?
• How much power will employers retain to enforce workplace anti-drug policies for people with legal marijuana prescriptions? Will employers be able to discriminate against applicants who use medical marijuana?
I expect these and many other questions won’t be addressed by the Ohio general assembly but instead will play out in court.