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Originally published Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Tackling the issue of driving while stoned

The question marijuana users have about Initiative 502 is its threshold standard of intoxication for driving on public roads. It’s an issue, but it should not be the deciding one.

Seattle Times Editorial

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For marijuana users — and there are tens of thousands in Washington, lawful and otherwise — the question about Initiative 502 is its threshold standard of intoxication for driving on public roads. This is an issue, but it should not be the deciding one.

Under I-502, a driver who has 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood is legally under the influence of drugs. That’s like the standard for alcohol. A driver whose blood is at least 0.08 percent alcohol is legally drunk. A driver can be arrested and convicted of driving under the influence with less than 0.08 percent if his driving is bad enough, but with 0.08 percent, there is no argument about it.

Patrol officers do not have a blood test for marijuana. If a driver’s alcohol test exonerates drink, the officer can call in a drug-recognition expert who can decide to do a blood draw. If the draw picks up an intoxicant, that’s evidence against the driver, but Robert Calkins, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol, says convictions are based mostly on testimony about the driving. Under Initiative 502 a blood level of 5 nanograms of THC would mean guilty. Clearly such guilty. Clearly, such a standard would make the work of the police and courts much easier. If the standard is scientifically valid, it should be in the law. About that, the pro- and anti-502 sides offer studies, none conclusive.

Most states have no standard or a zero standard, because most states consider THC illegal and make no effort to accommodate it. In Colorado, which may legalize marijuana in a public vote this November, the state Legislature came within one vote earlier this year of setting a standard of 5 nanograms.

That standard was put into I-502 so Washington voters, who are rightly concerned with road safety, would approve the rest of the bill. The rest of the bill makes a lot of sense, and voters should be willing to try the 5-nanogram standard and see how it works.

It still requires a traffic stop, probable cause for impaired driving, the calling of a separate drug officer to examine the driver and the drug officer’s decision to administer a blood test. Those things are time-consuming and expensive, and are not likely to be done indiscriminately.

And recall that the blood-alcohol standard was 0.15 percent for many years before it was eventually lowered to .08. If the 5-nanogram standard turns out to be wrong, it can also be changed.

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