By Derek Fleming
SACRAMENTO (CN) – California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law a package of measures intended to aid police and prosecutors in addressing drugged driving prior to the state’s plans to make recreational marijuana legal in 2018.
The package of laws authored by Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, has garnered support from law enforcement across the state. Lackey spent 28 years working as a California Highway Patrol officer before being elected to the assembly.
Medical marijuana has been legal since 1996 in the state, but few laws have been written to give law enforcement the tools needed to charge impaired drivers, and the confusion has left many California drivers unsure of their rights. With recreational legalization on the horizon, California is attempting to pre-empt the myriad problems Colorado and Washington, which both legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, have encountered.
“Governor Brown took a critical step today to help ensure California’s roadways are safe,” Lackey said. “We need to be prepared for next year when recreational cannabis sales begin, and this will allow [the California Highway Patrol] to get started on its work now.”
The new laws passed Tuesday establish training standards for law enforcement, including how to detect marijuana impairment and how to use technology to quickly and accurately determine levels of THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana that gets users high.
The law also clears up any ambiguity around transporting the drug. Pot must be carried in a sealed, unopened container or locked in the trunk, just like alcohol. The law gives police the ability to use a mouth swab to determine a suspect’s level of THC as well. This new technology, which can detect levels of six common drugs in five minutes, was showcased at a press conference in May at the State Capitol.
It can be difficult to establish levels of intoxication in those who partake of marijuana because the drug shows up in users’ blood for 30 days, though its effects generally last only a few hours. The swab test allows officers to determine intoxication by identifying a particular compound that rapidly breaks down when a user has consumed marijuana.
The technology has been used in limited tests in several counties with success. A judge in Kern County, one of the test regions, recently admitted swab evidence in a case against a driver who was ultimately convicted of driving under the influence of marijuana and methamphetamines, resulting in a fatality.
“We in law enforcement have the sworn duty to protect members of our communities and save lives,” said David Swing, first vice president for the California Police Chiefs Association, in a May 10 interview. “Just last month it was reported that for the first time in history, drivers killed in crashes are more likely to be on drugs than drunk. Unfortunately, while law enforcement has many tools to combat drunk driving, our drugged-driving tool box is far less equipped.”
The California Highway Patrol plans to have every officer trained on drugged-driving protocol by January 1. To meet that goal, the newly signed legislation will provide $3 million to train drug recognition experts.
The California Legislature introduced more than 30 bills this year to address legalized marijuana. The measure authorizing swab testing was defeated last year before being reintroduced in 2017 along with a package of bills meant to meet the requirements of Proposition 64, passed last year by voters, that decriminalizes marijuana usage.
A measure introduced by Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, that would have established measurable limits and penalties is currently on hold in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Hill also introduced a measure that would make smoking marijuana while driving a misdemeanor, bumping it up from its current status as an “infraction” that can be punished by a fine, but not jail time or probation. That bill is under review in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.