The legalization of recreational marijuana in California, which takes effect Jan. 1, comes amidst growing concern for driver safety, heightened by the tragic loss of a California Highway Patrol officer at the hands of an impaired driver.
CHP spokesman Ernie Sanchez said he’s worried about an uptick in impaired driving after the death of Officer Andrew Camilleri on Christmas Eve. Camilleri was sitting inside his CHP vehicle on the shoulder of Interstate 880 in Hayward late Sunday night when a suspected drunk and drugged driver slammed into the back of the vehicle.
Indeed, the combination of cars and cannabis is giving some in the transportation industry chills.
Count Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety among those concerned.
"A state with a lot of tourism, like Colorado, they have been promoting their state as a marijuana tourism site," said Rader, senior vice president of communications for IIHS, which conducted a study on insurance claims in states with recreational pot such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
According to the findings, while collisions rose a modest 3 percent for the group, Colorado witnessed a 14 percent spike since 2012.
"The main finding is that the numbers are all moving in the same direction, and it’s a worrisome direction," Rader said.
While an ocean of research on cannabis-related accidents shows mixed findings, a Denver Post investigation using federal data found the following: a 40 percent increase in Colorado drivers involved in fatal crashes since 2013; and a 145 percent leap in drivers found with marijuana in their system.
Legal experts say be careful not to draw conclusions.
"THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana that produces the high that impairs the driving, can stay in your bloodstream for up to a month and can stay there on average for 2 to 3 weeks," said Hadar Aviram of UC Hastings law school.
One of the greatest obstacles facing law enforcement right now is finding out when a driver has consumed cannabis and at what level.
Connecting tragedy to marijuana use may ultimately require better technology.
One Oakland group, Hound Labs, says it has developed a breathalyzer-type device for THC. While promising, law enforcement has been restricted by the federal government in this area. It’s been very difficult for law enforcement groups to sponsor tests because marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug.