While alcohol use continues to be the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, boating safety advocates have begun expanding their focus to take on the deadly effects of drugged driving. Of particular interest – now that more states are exploring and implementing measures to legalize cannabis (marijuana) – is impaired driving due to marijuana use.
Legal marijuana is the fastest-growing industry in the United States, according to the 3rd Edition of the State of the Legal Marijuana Markets by The ArcView Group. While the use, sale and possession of cannabis in the United States is illegal under federal law, some states have created exemptions for medical cannabis use, as well as decriminalized non-medical cannabis use.
In the past four years, four states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington – have legalized the sale and possession of marijuana for both medical and non-medical use. In addition, Washington, D.C. has legalized personal use of marijuana but not commercial use.
Over the next five years, the marijuana industry is expected to continue to grow, with ArcView predicting that 14 more states will legalize recreational marijuana and two more states will legalize medical marijuana. At least 10 states are already considering legalizing recreational marijuana in just the next two years through ballot measures or state legislatures.
Given the growing trend toward legalization, boating safety advocates, partners, and stakeholders are discussing how the legal recreational use of marijuana could affect boating safety. Among the top concern is that boating or operating a vessel while impaired by drugs leads to consequences that are equally as dangerous and potentially fatal as boating under the influence of alcohol.
So far, the states with legalized marijuana haven’t seen an uptick in boating under the influence (BUI) cases related to cannabis. This could be due to underreporting. “Marijuana is often used in conjunction with alcohol or other drugs. Alcohol is the first test, so often other contributing drugs haven’t been recorded or reported consistently. So marijuana is likely present but underreported,” says Randolph Henry, the boating law administrator for Oregon.
Another factor is likely that the legalization of recreational marijuana has been such a recent development that it’s simply too soon to tell what kind of effect, if any, it will have.
In Washington – where legalization took effect Dec. 6, 2013, making it the first state to legalize recreational marijuana – law enforcement agencies haven’t yet updated their reporting systems to break out BUI-marijuana separately from BUI-alcohol or other drugs. That update is now in the works.
Despite the underreporting of marijuana in BUI cases, officers haven’t noticed much of an increase marijuana use among boaters they’ve encountered on Washington’s waterways.
Colorado – where the first legal sales of recreational cannabis took place in January 2014 – as well has not detected an increased use of marijuana on the water. “The number of BUI arrests made our officers in 2014 was average, maybe a little below, but none were marijuana related,” says Colorado BLA Kris Wahlers. “I know we’ve made contacts and issued citations for consumption of marijuana in public on a boat, but those were passengers, not the operator that we could tell,” he adds.
Wahlers also cites detection as a large problem. “Marijuana is much more easily concealed and comes in many more ‘varieties’ than alcohol does. Looking for signs and symptoms that an operator is under the influence on the water has always been difficult, but it’s much more so now,” he adds.
Legalization just went into effect in February in Alaska, and the measure won’t go into effect until July 1, 2015, in Oregon.
However, Oregon has medical marijuana since 1998. “We have had instances where people who have been arrested for BUII claimed their medical marijuana card allowed them to have it. Of course, possession is one thing, being impaired is another,” adds Oregon BLA Randolph Henry.
The topic was discussed at the recent annual conference of the Western States Boating Administrators Association. “The general consensus is that impairment is impairment, regardless of the source,” said Alaska BLA Jeffrey Johnson.
In order to aid officers in detecting drug impairment among boaters, Colorado Parks & Wildlife aims to have more officers complete ARIDE (Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement) training
“The purpose of ARIDE is to bridge the gap between the Standardized Field Sobriety Testing (SFST), which is primarily focused on alcohol, and Drug Evaluation and Classification program, which is primarily focused on drugs,” explains Wahlers. “A field officer may start with believing that an operator is under the influence, then narrows down what that influence is based on a series of maneuvers and questions. Another level of training is for Drug Recognition Experts, but those are mostly found with traditional police departments, sheriff’s offices and the state patrol.”
The Oregon State Marine Board is undergoing an advisory committee review process of the state’s existing laws and the agency’s administrative rules, training and available resources related to marijuana and other drugs.
“We are looking at ARIDE training as an important step to bring all marine officers back up in their BUII skills, stimulate interested in DRE certifications, and improve the network of resources with all law enforcement who have extended detection capabilities,” says Henry. “We will be updating our BUII manual to include marijuana and will interface with our District Attorney association to provide additional training related to BUII issues.”
He adds, “We’re still on the front end of this and are working closely with our highway enforcement counterparts who are establishing some of the key groundwork.”
Washington State Parks, Washington State Patrol, Department of Fish and Wildlife and others have worked with the legislature to update the state’s boating under the influence and driving under the influence laws to include references to marijuana and a specific legal limit for THC in the bloodstream. Officially, 5ng (nanogram) is the legal limit.
“There is some argument about this standard,” says Alonzo. “Habitual users may have a higher blood level and not show signs of impairment while infrequent users may be well under that limit and still be highly impaired. This also has implications for officers attempting to enforce the law.”
Another challenge facing law enforcement officers is that THC, a chemical compound found in marijuana, is not detectable by a breathalyzer test.
“This means enforcement requires a blood test, probably preceded by examination by an officer trained as a drug recognition expert,” says Alonzo. “BUI cases already can pose significant logistical problems for officers in remote locations where there are no technicians nearby with certifications to remove blood. Moreover, in Washington, there are not as many officers trained as drug recognition experts as we would like.”
As more states look into legalizing marijuana, safety advocates, marine patrol officers and legislators are working to bolster safety and change the norms around boating so that it is as socially unacceptable to operate a vessel while impaired as it is a vehicle.
Marijuana – It’s not just for smoking anymore
Hiding marijuana has always been easier than hiding bottles of alcohol. The dry green buds can be stashed under seats, in storage compartments and in countless other places on a vessel. However, these days, the drug could literally be hiding in plain sight.
As Catherine Saint Louis with the New York Times reports, “Across the country, law enforcement agencies long accustomed to seizures of bagged, smokable marijuana are now wrestling with a surge in marijuana-infused snacks and confections transported illegally across state lines for resale.”
Referred to as pot edibles, these items took off in 2014, the first year of recreational sales in Colorado, when nearly 5 million individual items were sold to patients and adult users.
Pot edibles are much easier to transport than marijuana buds. Saint Louis adds, “They may resemble candy or home-baked goodies, and often have no telltale smell. And few police officers are trained to think of gummy bears, mints or neon-colored drinks as potential dope.”
MADD takes on drugged driving
New for 2015, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is expanding its mission to take on the deadly effects of drugged driving. While drunk driving is still a major concern, now is the time to tackle the issues surrounding drugged driving.
A 2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that 18 percent of drivers killed in car crashes tested positive for one or more prescription, over-the-counter, or illicit drugs. Even the smallest amount of a drug can interfere with coordination, reaction time, perception and judgment. Mixing drugs with alcohol can worsen impairment and increase the risk of crashing.