Drug-impaired driving is a growing concern in California and across the United States, and a ballot proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use in California this year could make the problem worse, the Automobile Club of Southern California cautioned in October. The Auto Club’s statistics indicate that nearly one in five fatal traffic crashes in our state involve at least one driver who tests positive for drugs.

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The Auto Club has gone on record opposing Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA). California voters will decide the issue when they vote in the national elections on November 8. Proposition 64 would legalize recreational marijuana use in California for people age 21 and older. The proposition would also impose taxes on commercial marijuana cultivation and sales that could eventually provide more than $1 billion a year for drug education, prevention, and treatment programs.

IS PROPOSITION 64 A GAMBLE?

AUMA is being financed by internet entrepreneur Sean Parker. It is supported by Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and a number of other prominent state and national figures. Employers will be allowed to keep their workplaces pot-free, and landlords may forbid marijuana possession and cultivation on their rental properties. However, the adoption of Proposition 64 could exacerbate the growing problem of drug-impaired motorists according to Kathy Sieck, senior vice president of public affairs for the Auto Club. “Prop. 64 is a gamble on the public’s safety, which isn’t a risk worth taking, especially when drug-impaired driving is on the rise,” Ms. Sieck said.

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Marijuana and drugs like heroin, cocaine, and oxycodone are a big part of the problem, but many prescription drugs also impair the ability to drive. “The problem extends beyond recreational marijuana and illegal drug usage – many prescription drugs can impair skills that are critical to driving,” Ms. Sieck added. Her comments were offered as the Automobile Club of Southern California convened a “Drugged Driving” conference in Los Angeles in October. Conference attendees listened to drugged-driving and public-policy experts discussing their findings on the effects of marijuana and other drugs on traffic safety and their concerns about Proposition 64.

WHAT WOULD PROP 64 DO – ASIDE FROM LEGALIZING POT?

While it legalizes recreational marijuana for adults, Proposition 64 also requires the state to conduct an extensive public-health information campaign that includes warnings about the dangers of driving while impaired by marijuana “and the potential harms of using marijuana,” according to Californians for Responsible Marijuana Reform, a group that supports Proposition 64.

Californians for Responsible Marijuana Reform also says that Proposition 64 will provide $3 million a year to the California Highway Patrol to develop updated tools and techniques for determining when a motorist is impaired by the use of cannabis. The proposal also provides, according to Californians for Responsible Marijuana Reform, “strict safeguards against children accessing it.”

Jake Nelson is the director of Traffic Safety, Advocacy and Research for AAA. He says that after the state of Washington legalized pot for recreational use, AAA researchers found fatal crashes involving drivers who had recently used marijuana more than doubled in that state. “More studies are needed, and it is worrisome that five states this year, including California, are considering a far-reaching policy change that could have unintended consequences for traffic safety, the emergency medical system, law enforcement and the courts,” Nelson said.

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, if approved by the voters this November, will allow adults age 21 and above to possess, purchase, consume, transport, and share up to one ounce of marijuana or eight grams of marijuana concentrates, and it imposes a 15 percent excise tax on pot sales. Marijuana consumption in public will still be illegal, and driving under the influence of marijuana will be prosecuted just like driving under the influence of alcohol. Those busted for DUI-marijuana in Southern California will still need legal representation from an experienced Orange County DUI lawyer.

If Proposition 64 passes, a conviction for smoking marijuana in public will be punishable by a $100 fine, smoking in a non-smoking area or within one thousand feet of a school will be a $250 fine, and possessing an open container of pot in a motor vehicle will also be a $250 fine. Anyone accused of violating the rules will have to pay the fine or contest the charge with an attorney’s help.

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The complete text of Proposition 64 is a 62-pages-long ballot initiative with hundreds of detailed restrictions, regulations, and exemptions. The proposal also includes complications and restrictions that some pot users find objectionable. California NORML (the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) has not taken a position for or against Proposition 64.

WILL DUI ARRESTS GO UP IF PROPOSITION 64 PASSES?

Will DUI arrests increase if Proposition 64 passes? It’s as certain as the sun coming up tomorrow. Law enforcement agencies across the state will almost immediately begin receiving the funds from marijuana excise taxes, and they’ll be anxious to use those resources, as mentioned previously, “to develop updated tools and techniques for determining when a motorist is impaired by the use of cannabis.” If Proposition 64 passes in November, pot smokers will be wise to keep it at home and to stay away from their vehicles while they’re high.

How much pot is too much to drive? That’s another controversial aspect of marijuana legalization. Currently, the DUI laws in California set no “legal limit” for marijuana intoxication, and there is no reliable detection device – like a breathalyzer – for marijuana. When prosecuting someone for driving under the influence of marijuana, the evidence typically will include the patrol car’s dash cam video, the testimony of a drug recognition expert, and the comments of the arresting police officer.

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For drivers in California, whether or not marijuana for recreational use is legalized in this state, the best advice is simple common sense. Don’t drink, don’t smoke pot, and do not take any other drug before driving. However, if you do make a bad judgment call and you end up being charged with DUI-marijuana – or if you’ve been wrongly accused and you’re innocent – take your case to an experienced Orange County DUI attorney who can advocate on your behalf. California may be about to embark on a great experiment, and only time will tell us the ultimate results.