Baker pushes bill to address drugged drivers

Though one expert estimates researchers are “years away” from developing a foolproof test to determine if drivers are high on pot, a bill filed by Gov. Charlie Baker would revoke someone’s license if they refuse to cooperate in chemical drug tests.

“We’re probably, I would estimate, years away from actually having some conclusive research,” Dan Zivkovich, executive director of the Massachusetts Police Training Committee, said. “There are many research institutes that are looking into this and trying to see if there is some sort of a confirmatory or definitive way to determine how much it takes to create impairment to the degree that you can’t safely operate equipment or a vehicle.”

Baker said the license suspension section of the bill was part of the discussion among the Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving and he expects that will be “part of the dialogue going forward.” The bill is based on recommendations made by that commission, according to the administration.

“If the training is sufficient and accurate and done the way it’s supposed to be done, there is research that supports the idea that this will in fact answer the question and if someone refuses to take it you should treat it the way you treat alcohol,” Baker said.

Zivkovich said the tests are meant to be “exculpatory,” to rule out certain sources of impairment as much as they are to support the officer’s potential prosecution. He added that equating marijuana to alcohol is a common misconception.

“Both of them certainly have depressing effects and impairing effects, but they metabolize totally differently and that is the challenge for researchers, is to come up with some sort of a way to quantify that,” Zivkovich said. “Marijuana may stay in your system for several days, traces of it, without having an impairing effect.”

The proposed legislative changes in the bill also include authorizing courts to take notice that ingesting THC, the active chemical in marijuana, impairs motorists; expanding training of drug recognition experts; banning unsealed packages of marijuana in cars; and allowing police officers to get an electronic search warrant for evidence of intoxication.

The legislation would also recognize the effectiveness of the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, shown through scientific research to be the single-most reliable field sobriety test, according to the administration.

“There’s a lot of evidence and plenty of data to support that after years and years and years of seeing a regular and continued decline in traffic accidents, we have seen those numbers level off and in some cases and in some areas actually go up,” Baker said.

The group also highlighted a campaign to educate cannabis users about the dangers of driving impaired and other legislation filed by the administration to strengthen the state’s impaired driving laws.

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