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Hawaii Asks: How Stoned is Too Stoned to Drive?

Will Hawaii help pave the way for how other states handle stoned drivers?

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As more states begin to decriminalize and legalize marijuana, they're also beginning to ask themselves how best to handle motorists driving under the influence. When it comes to alcohol, it's relatively easy for law enforcement to test inebriated drivers to see if they're above the legal limit. But is there a similar, accurate method that can test if people are "too high" to drive? Hawaii is currently trying to figure that out.

With legal medical marijuana dispensaries slated to open soon in the state, the big question Hawaiian lawmakers are now faced with is figuring out if there is a specific amount of cannabis that somebody can consume and still safely drive a vehicle. This is difficult, in part, because there is no federally recognized limit when it comes to driving high, as opposed to drunk driving, where the national blood alcohol limit is .08 (grams per milliliter). But the hope among lawmakers in the state is to have some sort of ruling on the books before dispensaries open.

Currently, the law in Hawaii bans people from driving under the influence of a drug that impairs their ability to drive, but when it comes to marijuana that can be tricky. Various studies have been conducted over the years, yet the results are difficult to translate into law.

For one, the amount of marijuana that might incapacitate someone can vary individually. While only a couple of puffs of a joint might make one person completely unable to operate a car safely, another person might only be impaired after a full joint (or two). And in fact, one study showed that those who are slightly stoned, may actually be more risk-averse, and will drive more cautiously. Also, the strain of the cannabis and the method it was ingested also plays a huge role, as smoking affects people much differently than edibles.

And finally, there's the matter of proper, accurate testing. Blood tests can turn up positive for THC weeks after someone consumes cannabis, despite the fact that the actual effects wear off after a few hours. With all these intricacies in mind, 16 Hawaiian lawmakers have introduced a resolution petitioning the State Department of Health to study all of these various factors to figure out what a safe limit might be.

Unfortunately for the representatives, the Department of Health opposes their resolution, stating that an important undertaking of this magnitude will require more funding and legwork than they have the capacity for. Despite the Department's resistance, the resolution has passed and is now with the state's House Committee on Health. Whether it ends up resulting in anything substantial before medical dispensaries open in Hawaii is unknown.

In addition to petitioning the Department of Health, Hawaii is investigating what the (few) other states who have legalized marijuana are doing. Colorado is at the top of their radar, as they have legalized both medicinal and recreational marijuana, and have been dealing with this issue in particular.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, "...drivers with five nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in their whole blood can be prosecuted for driving under the influence (DUI). However, no matter the level of THC, law enforcement officers base arrests on observed impairment."

Yet many people (from lawyers to academics, cannabis activists and even those in law enforcement) have questioned these laws, stating that they're not an accurate assessment of whether or not the driver is actually impaired. A 2015 study conducted by Forensic Science International found that in heavy users, even after abstaining for a set amount of time, their blood still showed "impaired" levels of THC, despite the actual effects having worn off 24 hours to five days previously.

And for now, blood and urine tests, are the only ways law enforcement can show a positive THC result once they pull someone over for impaired driving. While one company has shown some promise working on a marijuana breathalyzer, it's nowhere ready to be used by local law enforcement yet, and has similar issues as blood tests.

Clearly, Hawaii would like to avoid these discrepancies and limitations with the way most states are testing for incapacitated driving due to marijuana. Both to have actual hard science supporting their rulings, but also to be fair to the citizens of Hawaii. Yet, without the help of the Department of Health investigated the matter more thoroughly, the state may have to rely on the same questionable methods and limitations that other areas of the country have in place.