Drugged driving summit in Tampa addresses the reality of more stoned drivers on the road

Authored by Mitch Perry on January 26, 2015, and originally published on SaintPetersBlog.com (saintpetersblog.com/archives/177214)

 Although last November Florida earned the dubious distinction of being the first state in the country to reject medical marijuana at the ballot box (it received over 57 percent of the vote, but needed 60 percent for passage), the momentum for medical pot remains strong. State Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) announced today he will file legislation in the upcoming legislative session in Tallahassee to expand medicinal marijuana. Previously, attorney John Morgan had announced that he intended to revive efforts to get a medical marijuana measure back on the ballot in 2016.

As more parts of the country now allow some form of legal marijuana consumption, auto safety advocates say much more needs to be done to contend with the growing number of motorists who are stoned on pot or prescription drugs while driving.

That was the whole purpose of the AAA Drugged Driving Summit, held Monday at the Double-Tree West Shore hotel in Tampa.

“Thirty years ago, the concentration of THC in cannabis was between one and three percent,” said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA national. “And today there are some strains of cannabis that have some THC concentrations as high as 30 percent.” That was just one of a multitude of reasons why Nelson said that driving while impaired has become a major issue in the country — an issue currently unaddressed but also lacking reliable data.

One reason is that states vary widely in testing for drugs and alcohol in the case of fatal accidents. While in some states up to 85 percent of those involved in such incidents are tested, others test as few as just two percent of motorists involved in such incidents. Another problem is that many drivers who cause accidents are found to have both drugs and alcohol in their system, making it hard to determine which substance had the greater effect.

“Without good data, we don’t truly understand the scope of the problem,” Nelson said. “We’re making public policy without good data.” He also fretted that the general public simply doesn’t appreciate how dangerous driving on drugs really is. “It’s just not perceived as risky an issue as alcohol in driving,” he lamented.

But despite his concerns, the AAA’s Nelson insisted that his organization is not anti-consumption of medical marijuana, currently the law in over 20 states. “Our concern is when there’s impairment.”

Hundreds attended the forum, including state lawmakers Jeff Brandes and Larry Ahern, as well a number of state prosecutors and members of local law enforcement agencies.

Kyle Clark is the state coordinator and instructor for the Florida Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) program. A DRE is an officer who has received specialized training and is called in to evaluate suspects detained by law enforcement. A DRE’s job is to evaluate if the suspect in question is impaired, what drug category(s) are causing the impairment, and if a medical condition is the cause of such an impairment. There are 203 certified DREs in Florida. Clark said that it’s not an easy job due to the hours involved, with the average lifespan of a DRE only around six years.

Drugs are a constant factor in traffic crashes in Florida, said Bruce Goldberger, a professor of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine. He said that there will never be a specified relationship between the concentration of a drug in the bloodstream and the risk of an auto crash. He said drugged driving motorists are much more difficult to prosecute than alcohol-inspired driving. He said that drugs are a constant factor in traffic crashes.

He also said that any drug — including over-the-counter prescriptions — can affect brain perception, as well as the collecting, processing and storing of information. “When people begin a new medication, they’re slightly more likely to suffer a crash,” he added.

Scheduled to address the forum later on Monday was Barry K. Logan, vice president of forensic science initiatives and chief of forensic toxicology, NMS Labs. He was slated to discuss the impact of changing marijuana laws on impaired driving.