rolling blunt in carMarijuana is become legal in more and more states every year, whether for recreational or, more commonly, for medical use. In 20 states, it can be prescribed for different ailments. In some states, only severe conditions qualify. In others, prescriptions can be made for conditions as common as insomnia. In four other states, plus Washington, D.C., recreational marijuana is also legal. Though it is technically still a banned substance under federal law, the Drug Enforcement Agency rarely gets involved in states where it is legal.

One state where recreational use of pot is legal is Washington. It was one of the first states to adopt weed legalization statutes, first for medical use then for recreational use in 2013. Due to its widespread popularity, officials expect pot sales to bring in at least $1 billion in tax revenue over the next four years. But that’s not the only statistic it’s raising: Pot is also taking a toll on drivers in Washington state.

Startling Figures

teens smoking a bongIn 2014, marijuana was considered a factor in 17 percent of all fatal accidents in the state — up from 8 percent in the previous year. While that’s still lower than the nearly 30 percent of fatalities that involved drunk driving, it’s still a startling figure. According to Peter Kissinger, CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety who conducted the study, “The significant increase in fatal crashes involving marijuana is alarming. Washington serves as an eye-opening case study for what other states may experience with road safety after legalizing the drug.”

However, it’s almost impossible to say whether the driver who caused the fatal accident was high at the time, especially if they themselves were killed in the accident. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that gets the user high, can stay in the stay in the bloodstream for weeks or even months after initial consumption. So, blood tests for someone who smoked an hour before driving could look similar to someone who smoked weeks ago. That would be similar to arresting someone because they had a glass of wine last week, then drove today.

Other Problems with Measuring THC

man smoking bluntIn addition to the inefficiency of blood tests, THC affects each individual in a different way. For some, just one or two hits off of a blunt can severely impair their ability to open a fridge door, much less operate a car. But, another person could eat an entire pot brownie with highly concentrated THC and have it barely affect their ability to drive. And it’s not so easy to categorize different genders or ethnicities as being more or less affected by the drug.

The main factor is experience with marijuana, but even then, it’s not a perfect classification system. An inexperienced smoker may still have a high tolerance, while a veteran may still “feel it” after only a short time. Instead of looking at THC levels, then, or trying to set a “legal limit” for how much THC can be in the blood, AAA recommends that officers look at different factors if they pull over a driver who has been using pot. These include measuring psychological and, more easily, behavioral evidence of being high.

Trying to Test for THC

cannabix pot breathalyzerOne sure way an officer can tell a driver has been smoking is the lingering smell and, in some cases, bloodshot eyes. If they suspect a driver has used pot recently, they can order a blood test. However, such a test can take weeks to complete after the results have gotten to the lab. This is an efficient system, both when it comes to time and when it comes to results. Instead, scientists are working on a new solution.

Herb Hill, a chemistry professor at Washington State University in Pullman, and his team are working on a kind of Breathalyzer that detects THC. The prototype of the device, called the Cannabix, uses something called ion mobility spectrometry, which is used by airports and the military to detect explosives and chemical warfare agents. However, it will be years before the technology is accurately perfected, and in the meantime other solutions like cheek swabs are also being considered. Whatever the option chosen, there is still the element of uncertainty regarding how much THC should be considered “impairing.”

Weed Legalization Coming to Florida?

So far, any kind of use of marijuana is illegal in Florida. However, if voters have their way in November, that may change. According to recent polls, 80 percent of voters say they would vote to pass a state constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana. The amendment only needs 60 percent approval to pass. However, only 56 percent said they would vote to legalize recreational marijuana.

However, that kind of support was also present when a similar referendum was up for a vote in 2014. The bill failed at the last minute due to a massive campaign by opposers of marijuana. The same kind of campaign is promised again by opposition. The amendment failing would leaving Florida in a shrinking group of states who still oppose any kind of marijuana use within their borders.