DUBLIN (KPIX 5) — California is still working out the kinks after the legalization of recreational marijuana use materialized in January. Cannabis-impaired drivers continue to present a challenge for law enforcement.

California Highway Patrol and other agencies, including a prosecutor from Colorado, met at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department in Dublin on Monday for a Marijuana Traffic Safety Summit, which aimed to provide insight into the legalization of marijuana in California and its impact on impaired driving.

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The summit, the first of its kind in the Bay Area, brought together officials from law enforcement, the Department of Justice and members of the cannabis industry to discuss the issue.

“The take away is training and education for law enforcement and judges and the community at large,” said Helena Williams, a CHP captain.

CHP said that since January 1st, when recreational cannabis use became legal in California, injuries related to people driving under the influence of marijuana increased 102 percent. Driving-impaired arrests have also been on the rise. The sad reality hits home for CHP officers.

“We lost an officer eight months ago to somebody who chose to drive and smoke marijuana. We can’t afford to lose anybody else–officer or motorist. If we don’t get in front of this problem that driving and smoking is illegal and dangerous, people will die. Our families will be impacted,” said Williams.

Jennifer Knudsen is a traffic safety resource prosecutor with the DA’s office in Colorado, a state that legalized recreational marijuana use four years before California did. She spoke at the summit and gave her advice based on the experiences she had in Colorado.

“We talked about the dangers of driving after using marijuana, what officers can look for in their investigations, how to tie that together with any toxicology results and ultimately about the use in the courtroom,” said Knudsen.

Unlike blood alcohol percentage, there is no legal limit indicator for marijuana in California, and field tests are often inadmissible in court.

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“I would like to see development of better performance-based tests,” said Dale Gieringer of the California NORML, an non-profit organization dedicated to the reform of marijuana laws. “What we do not want to see are chemical tests that put fixed numbers on whether people are impaired, because it’s more than a fixed number.”

Many would agree today that there needs to be more training and public awareness when it comes to cannabis-impaired driving.

“Our officers are being trained to be drug recognition experts as well as more aware of people driving under the influence of drugs. But we also are learning that society believes you can smoke marijuana and drive and be perfectly fine,” said Chief Ernest Sanchez of CHP’s Golden Gate Division.

There were about 200 people at the summit and the general public was also invited to attend for a portion of the day. Talks about the issue will continue to be held. A task force has even been set up, and it will meet quarterly.

The next meeting will be in Sacramento in September.

It is against the law to have cannabis in one’s car, just like having an open container of alcohol.


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Juliette Goodrich