Marijuana users worried I-502 sets legal limit too lowon November 5, 2012 @ 11:08 am (Updated: 11:50 am - 11/5/12 )
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Legalizing marijuana could affect more than just where users buy their drug of choice. It could seriously impact how those users are prosecuted for Driving Under the Influence of Drugs.
Initiative 502 sets up a limit of five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. Any more than that and drivers could be prosecuted. While they would face the same penalties currently in place, some say the threshold set by the new rules would be unfair.
"I'm a medical marijuana user. I wake up at 3 to 4 times the legal limits when I wake up in the morning and I guarantee you I'm not impaired," says Steve Sarich, spokesman for the No on I-502 campaign.
He worries the initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use in Washington state would result in the prosecution of medicinal users. While some users may be impaired at five nanograms, Sarich says he has built up a tolerance. He claims it takes a lot more of the drug to make him too affected to drive.
"At five nanograms I'm definitely not impaired," says Sarich, "It is such an individual thing."
While Sarich says studies are mixed on the effects of marijuana on driving ability, Forensic Toxicologist Dave Michaelson says it is clear to him. THC affects the hippocampus more than any other area of the body. Michaelson explains, that's the computer portion of the brain that controls reactions to outside stimulus.
"What happens is it starts affecting how fasts you can respond if a child jumps out into the road. Your ability to quickly slam on the brakes is going to be affected. It's going to take longer," says Michaelson.
With DUI laws applying to liquor on the books for decades, many drivers have become used to being able to measure their intoxication level and wait the appropriate time before getting behind the wheel.
One problem with marijuana, according to Michaelson, is that the math is not so easy.
Not only does THC add up in a person at different rates based on how frequently they've used the drug in the past, it also can dissipate at different rates. That's because alcohol is a water-soluble substance while THC is fat-soluble.
"If you spilled alcohol on your hands and washed them in the sink, that alcohol would be off in a matter of moments," Michaelson explains. "But if you spilled oil on your hands and you then put your hand under a water faucet, it takes a lot of time if you're not using soap to get that oil off your hands."
For daily users of marijuana whose fat cells are already saturated with THC, Michaelson says it can take weeks or even months for the drug to get below the five nanogram limit set under I-502. Even though the user may not currently feel high, he says the THC is still affecting their ability to drive safely.
"Even though the driver won't necessarily feel high," Michaelson says, "the actual effect of that THC will continue on them to a lesser degree."
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