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Will Prop. 19 Cause You To Drive While Stoned?

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Our lengthy discussion about legalizing marijuana in California is nearing its climax as Tuesday’s election approaches. And the question of marijuana DUIs has emerged as another reason not to vote for Proposition 19. That’s the way Prop 19 opponents see it, at least.

— Our lengthy discussion about legalizing marijuana in California is nearing its climax as Tuesday’s election approaches. And the question of marijuana DUIs has emerged as another reason not to vote for Proposition 19. That’s the way Proposition 19 opponents see it, at least.

Driving while stoned (let’s call it DWS) is already illegal under laws that prohibit driving under the influence. But opponents of Prop 19 say legalizing marijuana will make stoned drivers more common, and they say prosecuting DWS cases is very difficult.

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San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said drunk driving may be a problem, but at least law enforcement has a clear standard to enforce. The law says you’ve committed a crime if your blood alcohol level is .08 percent.

“But there’s no such conclusive test for marijuana,” said Dumanis, “leaving it up to the officer to prove whether or not there is impairment.”

Dumanis appeared at a press conference today with San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore and a number of other people who oppose Prop 19. Dumanis went on to say that proving a DWS is tricky because marijuana stays in your system for up to 30 days. Just because police spot it in a urine test, that doesn’t mean the person is stoned.

Reasonable people seem to agree that smoking a joint before driving is a threat to public safety. Sherie Rubin, a San Diego mom who spoke at the news conference, said her son crashed two cars while under the influence of marijuana.

But the “pro” side of the Prop 19 debate said Dumanis has it wrong. Paul Armantano, with the Prop 19 campaign, said legalizing marijuana will have no bearing on enforcing California’s DUI laws.

“California law enforcement enforce drug-driving laws for marijuana today,” he said. “They will continue to enforce drug-driving laws in the future.”

Armantano says police arrest drivers under the influence of pot when they see them driving erratically… just like they do for drunk drivers. He says police can put them under arrest if they fail standard sobriety tests – walk a straight line, follow my finger with your eyes, etc. – just like they do with drunk drivers.

Armantano adds that urine tests are unreliable when it comes to testing for marijuana impairment, but blood tests can determine whether marijuana has been used recently.

The bigger question may be whether legalizing marijuana will, in fact, cause more people to use marijuana and, therefore, drive while stoned. Studies cited by the pro-marijuana group NORML say it won’t. But John Redman, director of the anti-drug organization Communities in Action, says it will.

“If you increase access to a drug, any drug, you increase its use. If you decrease the perception of harm or risk, you increase its use. Legalizing a drug does both,” he said.

The U.S. Attorney General has said U.S. authorities will continue to enforce federal prohibitions against marijuana use and sales, regardless of whether California legalizes marijuana. San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore said that makes it hard for a city or county to tax and regulate marijuana, as Prop 19 says they will.

“When a county or a city enters into taxing or collecting taxes from a marijuana dispensary, we become an accessory in violating federal law,” Gore said. “So it’s just not going to happen.”

We'll see.

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