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New Mexico considers expanding DWI laws to include marijuana

Medical marijuana is legal in over half of the states (28) in the United States, including New Mexico. The state also passed a bill in January 2017 for legalizing marijuana for adult use. Looking at these developments, a recent bill from New Mexico state Rep. William Rehm, (R-Albuqerque) sought to expand the state’s existing driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws to cover drivers who use marijuana and other drugs. Rehm’s bill would set blood concentration levels for five drugs:

  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Marijuana
  • Methamphetamines

Driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) at 0.08 percent or higher is illegal in the U.S. Driving under the influence of substances is a big concern in the U.S. However, there has been a noticeable decline in DWI deaths in New Mexico. In 2015, the DWI deaths in the state reached a 36-year low to touch 122, a 28 percent decline from 2014.

Looking at the growing popularity of marijuana, the authorities are planning to include marijuana too in DWI laws. Marijuana can certainly affect a person’s ability to drive an automobile, though a study by the University of Iowa found that marijuana seemed to impair drivers less than alcohol. However, many researchers, including those from the American Automobile Association (AAA) have questioned the fact that at what level tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, can impair drivers.

Legal limits not easy to determine

The AAA’s Foundation for Public Safety published a study in 2016 on the effects of marijuana legalization on drivers in Washington, where marijuana was legalized in 2012. After analyzing drug test results and fatal crashes, the AAA’s researchers found that fatal crashes involving marijuana had doubled during 2013-2014. And of the drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2014, one in six had recently used marijuana.

“The significant increase in fatal crashes involving marijuana is alarming. Washington serves as an eye-opening case study for what other states may experience with road safety after legalizing the drug,” said AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety President Peter Kissinger in a press release.

The same study also warned that determining a legal limit for marijuana intoxication was not as easy as it appeared. After analyzing lab results from drivers arrested for impaired driving, the AAA’s researchers drew three conclusions:

  • Unlike alcohol, there is no clear research showing drivers getting impaired at specific levels of THC. A driver with a high level of THC in their blood may be a safe driver; another driver with comparatively low levels of THC might be too impaired to drive.
  • THC levels might drop below a legal threshold before a test. According to the AAA, a blood test often takes more than two hours to take due to legal paperwork and transportation to a facility.
  • Not everybody is affected by THC the same way. A heavy marijuana user may still have high levels of THC in the blood and yet not have used the drug in some time; a casual user may see levels of THC in their system drop rapidly.

“There is understandably a strong desire by both lawmakers and the public to create legal limits for marijuana impairment, in the same manner as we do with alcohol. In the case of marijuana, this approach is flawed and not supported by scientific research,” said AAA president and CEO Marshall Doney. “It’s simply not possible today to determine whether a driver is impaired based solely on the amount of drug in their body.”

Impaired driving is often a warning sign

Driving under the influence of any substance is a serious issue. A study from the Behavioral Health Research Center of the Southwest conducted interviews of 700 adults with drunk driving convictions and found almost half were either long-term heavy drinkers or had begun drinking heavily again after trying to quit. But marijuana seems to be different from alcohol in both how it affects drivers and how it shows up in the bloodstream.

If your life – or the life of someone you care about – is being affected by substance abuse, Sovereign Health of Texas can help. Our El Paso treatment center provides a calm, welcoming place to receive effective, evidence-backed substance use treatment. Call our 24/7 helpline for more information.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at news@sovhealth.com.

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