One of the election battles that was overshadowed by the presidential results this November was marijuana legalization. In the past few years a number of states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, beginning with Colorado and Washington in 2012. On this election day Arizona had its chance, but its citizens voted against legalization, by about 51 to 48 percent.
The question of marijuana legalization is inseparable from the problem of impaired driving, a problem that has been prominent in Arizona’s legal landscape for years.
When the federal government settled on.08 BAC (blood alcohol concentration) as a logical limit for measuring intoxication, not all states fell in line. Only when the feds started withholding highway funds for states that kept a higher limit did the last states grudgingly adopt the .08 limit.
Arizona was among the last, changing theirs in 2001.
Within six years the state had changed its attitude toward drunk driving. In 2007 Arizona became one of the first states to mandate ignition interlocks for all DUI offenses. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.
Since then Arizona has become a model for other states’ DUI enforcement efforts.
The marijuana question puts everything back on square one. Chief among the problems is detection: how do you know when a person is too impaired by pot to drive?
It might be obvious if the person is truly stoned, but as we know, there is a gray area: a person can appear sober but not be in shape to drive. Coordination, judgement, vision, and other faculties can be compromised in a way that’s not apparent.
The legal minefield is the system for detecting marijuana impairment: we don’t have one. It’s possible to detect marijuana in the bloodstream, but that doesn’t mean that the subject is impaired. Residue can stay in the system for weeks after using pot. This is very different from alcohol, which is comparatively straightforward: the booze enters the bloodstream, and can be measured as it exits with a breathalyzer.
So the question is, is Arizona ahead of or behind the curve? More and more states are choosing to legalize recreational marijuana, and public safety advocates and other authorities and interest groups disagree over whether or not more impaired driving will result. An AAA study last May found that legal pot led to more fatal crashes involving the substance. But legalization has not led to sky-high numbers of fatalities yet, so the jury is still out.
Arizona’s citizens, then, opted for caution. At least, 51 percent of them did. If that number changes in the future, then the state will be facing the same problems of detection and prosecution that others now face. In the meantime, illegal marijuana is still being used, and those smokers are also driving, so the problem is on Arizona’s – and every state’s – doorstep anyway.