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With recreational cannabis imminent, Marylanders try to draw line between consumption and impairment

By Dillon Mullan Baltimore Sun May 19, 2023 at 2:01 pm

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To help the state’s law enforcement and businesses prepare for the imminent legalization of recreational cannabis, volunteers smoked marijuana Wednesday afternoon as part of a multi-agency training program in Windsor Mill.

Baltimore County Police and the Chesapeake Region Safety Council hosted the green lab — where medical cannabis patients got high — to give officers and workplace safety professionals firsthand experience determining the line between safe consumption and impairment. The council has held 17 similar events in Maryland since 2019, said Debbie Jennings, the organization’s director of Highway Safety Programs. At Wednesday’s program, participants were offered Uber rides and asked to consume enough marijuana to become impaired before participating in practice field sobriety tests by law enforcement.

“Most of the cops have no idea about cannabis; that is extremely evident. There is an undertone of judgment for sure,” said volunteer Mack Dawson, who was attending his fourth green lab. Dawson said he smoked three 1-gram joints before walking in a straight line, balancing and touching his nose with a fingertip in a field test.

“But when you’re around police, especially as a person of color, there are nerves,” Dawson said. “There is one test I have always failed. You’re supposed to put your fingertip to the tip of your nose instead of laying your finger on your nose. That is a slight nuance that could allow them to say, ‘Oh, this person failed the test.’” In an email to the Sun, Baltimore County Police Sgt. Tom Morehouse, who supervises traffic training, said the eye, balance and walking field tests are the same for alcohol or any other drug.

“All of the balance tests have their own specific clues that would indicate impairment to the officer,” Morehouse said in the email.

He continues, “Generally, they are all divided-attention tests. In order to safely operate a vehicle, the driver has to be able to divide their attention to process information received, control their speed, stay straight on the road, and control their vehicle in a turn.”

Jennings said 25 private companies and 16 Maryland law enforcement agencies attended the event Wednesday. Medical patients spoke about marijuana breaking a stigma as unserious medicine. “There is a difference between use and impairment,” patient Rita Lynn Lawrence said. “The smell doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong or somebody is doing something harmful. For me, the medical benefits for spastic muscles, muscle atrophy, physical function and depression because of all that have been life-changing.”

Lawrence, who lives in Edgewater, said she gave up her car before medical marijuana. She now relies on a daily prescription regimen to drive and complete other tasks. “There are good people that use cannabis in all ways,” she said. Lawrence said she was one of the first patients in the state’s medical marijuana program, which launched in 2017. Before finding her regimen of edible cannabis to treat her muscular dystrophy, Lawrence said she turned to alcohol.

“Before weed, I drank a lot to cover the pain. Alcohol allowed me to fall asleep at night. It was a lot of alcohol and pain medicine,” Lawrence said.

Medical patients and advocates at Wednesday’s event said they are excited about increased access to cannabis as an alternative to alcohol or pills.

“Everywhere I went, the stories were the same,” Air Force veteran Steve Ellmore said. “Guys were given jars of pills and then wind up taking their own lives or turning into zombies, and then finding out we can replace all those drugs with a single plant and people can get their lives back.”

Legal sales of recreational cannabis for those 21 and over are slated to start July 1 in Maryland. But Maryland drivers still can be charged with driving under the influence of marijuana.

At the training program Wednesday, Morehouse explained that there is no Breathalyzer for marijuana consumption, and that the same dose can have vastly different impacts on different people, so the determination of impairment falls on an officer’s evaluation instead of blood alcohol level.

“People may feel when it becomes legal July 1 that means ‘I can smoke and drive on July 1,’ and that’s not true. You cannot drive when you’re impaired by it,” Morehouse said. “However we recognize the difference between therapeutic doses and impairment. It boils down to that evaluation that [officer] does evaluating the indicators of use and indicators of impairment.” Law enforcement officers with extensive experience and nine days of classroom training are certified Drug Recognition Experts, Morehouse later said in an email, and that currently Maryland has 189 DREs in 33 separate agencies, a little over 1% of 16,000 officers.

“They have to show a certain accuracy percentage between what their opinion was and what the drug test confirmed,” Morehouse emailed. “Once they are certified as Drug Recognition Experts, they have to be reviewed every two years to confirm they have met at least the minimum continuing education requirements and conducted at least the minimum number of drug influence evaluations.”

According to a bill that passed during this year’s General Assembly session, a law enforcement officer may not initiate a stop or search a person or motor vehicle based solely on the odor of burnt or unburnt cannabis

Jennings said at the next green lab event June 20, law enforcement officers and construction managers will be piloting new technology for sobriety tests to determine cannabis impairment, including an app with a cognitive test to determine a user’s impairment, an eye test and an oral swab that detects cannabis use within the past three hours. According to a study by the Journal of Studies of Alcohol and Drugs focused on data from 2009 to 2019, states that legalized marijuana and opened a retail market saw a 5.8% increase in injury crash rates and a 4.1% increase in fatal crash rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol-impaired drivers accounted for 30% of all traffic-related deaths in the United States in 2020, a 14.3% increase from 2019.


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