Attorney General Jeff Sessions just threw California and the seven other states that have approved recreational marijuana use into confusion by reversing an Obama administration policy and allowing local U.S. attorneys to enforce federal anti-cannabis laws at their discretion. But no one should believe Sessions is changing the arc of history when it comes to Americans accepting marijuana use. An October Gallup poll showed record support for marijuana legalization — 64 percent — a massive change from 1996, when only 25 percent supported it.
Perhaps making marijuana legal won't increase its use because it is already so widely available from medical pot dispensaries and the black market. But legalizing recreational use normalizes cannabis and may make it both more acceptable and more common. Any increase, especially by inexperienced users, makes it crucial that the public be protected, in our car-crazy culture, from pot-impaired drivers.
After Colorado legalized recreational marijuana sales in 2014, traffic fatalities linked to marijuana use rose from 47 in 2013 to 115 in 2016. That's troubling. Also, testing for marijuana is far more difficult than for alcohol impairment, which can be measured easily with breathalyzers. No such reliable quick, hard-science field tests are available to determine the presence of THC, marijuana's primary active ingredient, or other drugs that impair motor skills.
Nearly a year ago, the San Diego Police Department obtained two Dräger DrugTest 5000 machines, which test oral mouth swipes from drivers suspected of impairment for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, opiates, methamphetamine, amphetamine, methadone and benzodiazepines. Dräger asserts that its machines only test for the presence of the active THC compound that impairs a driver — not residual THC. If a driver field-tested by SDPD shows the compound, he or she must submit to blood tests to establish levels of impairment. The German company claims its machine worked in two California tests with 98.9 percent accuracy.
Yet scientific studies of the Dräger method and similar tests don't back that up. In 2017, the journal of the Canadian Forensic Science Society suggested saliva tests could prove to be a valuable tool for law enforcement. The journal also noted researchers found relatively high levels of false positive results and unimpressive results in detecting cannabis use. It also noted that oral mouth swipes were better at detecting some drugs than others. These concerns about Dräger's effectiveness are shared by the Orange County District Attorney's Office.
For everyone's safety, here's hoping intense research into improving drug field tests continues. In California, it's never been more important to quickly and accurately identify stoned drivers.