Cannabis legalization brings the potential for health and safety issues in Minnesota
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One of the big concerns expressed by Republican legislators Friday and throughout the cannabis debate is the lack of a breathalyzer for marijuana.
But as recreational marijuana legalization spread through more than 20 states since 2009, a few companies have actually developed detection methods.
It’s logical that driving stoned is dangerous just like driving drunk is.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found deadly car crashes increased by 4% in states that legalized recreational marijuana. But that’s about the end of the comparison working because alcohol is a unicorn among intoxicants.
"It’s really the only substance that is used where there is an absolute impairment standard," said Mike Lynn, a physician and reserve deputy sheriff, and the founder of Hound Labs.
At .08% blood alcohol content, almost everybody is impaired. And a properly calibrated breathalyzer can read your BAC with a high level of accuracy. A lot of Minnesota Republicans lamented the lack of a similar strategy for detecting stoned drivers.
"We need the impairment test first before we start legalize recreational adult marijuana," said State Senator Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, during a debate Friday afternoon.
But cannabis breathalyzers do exist. Hound Labs produces one that detects recent marijuana use. Lynn says it identifies THC in the breath and that’ll disappear within three hours, unlike in your blood or urine where it can remain for weeks.
"You don’t really care that somebody had a beer or two a week ago," Lynn said. "All you really care about is that they’re not drinking on the job or they’re not drinking behind the wheel. The same goes for cannabis."
But breathalyzers can’t detect whether someone is impaired and there’s no specific level of THC in the body that means you shouldn’t be driving.
That’s where Chris Halsor’s law enforcement training comes in.
"We focus on establishing mental impairment more so than physical impairment," Halsor said.
The former prosecutor runs Understanding Legal Marijuana and teaches officers to focus on seeing how drivers process information.
Standardized field sobriety tests won’t work. But Halsor says stoned drivers have defects in short-term memory and struggle with problems a child should be able to solve. And it doesn’t take a seasoned officer to identify those issues.
"The stuff we developed here through the green labs was meant for the everyday, average officer," Halsor said.
The bills passed this week include funding for both testing breathalyzers and training law enforcement for better detection.
Combining the subjective observations and the objective breathalyzer could be the key to enforcement.