BOSTON — Law enforcement officials on Tuesday urged lawmakers to approve Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to toughen impaired driving laws to keep stoned motorists off the road.
Baker’s proposal, which has languished since he filed it earlier this year, would suspend the driver’s licenses of motorists suspected of being high behind the wheel who decline to submit to police demands for a blood, saliva or urine test. Many of the proposed rules would mirror the penalties for drunken drivers who refuse a Breathalyzer test.
“We live in a time when drug-impaired driving has surpassed alcohol and is being detected more frequently in fatal motor vehicle crashes,” Walpole police Chief John Carmichael Jr. told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “Yet Massachusetts law enforcement is grossly ill-prepared to effectively resolve this problem because of procedural barriers which hinder some of the enforcement practices.”
Driving while under the influence of marijuana is illegal and punishable under the same laws that prohibit drunken driving. But there is no “implied consent” law in Massachusetts that requires drivers suspected of driving while stoned to submit to any such test, or face penalties for not doing so.
Under the proposal, a person suspected of driving under the influence of pot who refuses to take a chemical test for impairment would lose his or her license for at least six months.
Baker’s plan would also would extend the state’s open container law to include marijuana, prohibiting drivers from having loose or unsealed packages of pot in their vehicles.
Drugged driving stats
Police officials say sanctions for pot-impaired driving haven’t kept pace with the slow but steady rollout of the state’s recreational and medical marijuana markets.
“We have to do something,” said Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “There are a lot statistics out there about the number of marijuana-impaired drivers on the roads, and we desperately need to do something to keep everyone who isn’t impaired safe.”
In Massachusetts, driving under the influence of drugs is a misdemeanor on the first offense but rises to a felony on third and subsequent offenses.
Penalties can include a $2,500 fine, jail time, license suspension and enrollment in a drug treatment program.
There were 1,708 arrests in 2018 for first-time offenses of driving under the influence of drugs in Massachusetts, according to the state’s Merit Rating Board, which keeps statistics on motor vehicle violations. The data do not distinguish marijuana impairment from other drugs, nor do they include drivers charged with multiple offenses.
From January to July this year, there were 1,180 first-time OUI arrests, according to the board.
Last year, a state Department of Public Health study found that nearly one-third of adults who reported using marijuana also reported driving under the influence of pot.
Law enforcement officials say a lack of technology and training for officers limits their ability to detect who is too high to drive. Unlike Breathalyzer tests that measure blood alcohol levels, no reliable device is available to gauge marijuana impairment.
Suspected drugged drivers must agree to chemical tests for impairment. If a motorist is pulled over by an officer who suspects the influence of drugs, the police investigation can include field sobriety tests and observations, taking the driver’s pulse and temperature, examining dilation of the driver’s pupils and taking a blood sample.
But, unlike drivers suspected of being under the influence of alcohol, someone cannot be punished for refusing the drug screenings.
Currently there are about 150 trained drug recognition experts in police departments across the state — including Lawrence, Andover, Beverly, Peabody, Haverhill, Newbury and Amesbury — who undergo a week-long course to become certified. Baker’s proposal would train another 200 drug recognition experts and allow them to testify in court.
“Given the lack of reliable roadside test for cannabis impairment, we believe that a rigorously trained (drug recognition expert) is the best, most effective tool we have for assessing driver impairment at the roadside,” AAA Northeast spokesman Mary Maguire told lawmakers. “And we know the problem of drivers operating under the influence of alcohol and drugs is increasing.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com