Politics & Government

State looks to ban pot in vehicles

When it comes to setting limits on driving while under the influence, the architects of Washington’s legal marijuana law largely aimed to imitate the state’s rules for alcohol.

In one crucial respect, though, state officials say the legal pot law is different: There’s no explicit language saying that you can’t smoke marijuana in a car.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission wants state lawmakers to fix that oversight when they reconvene in January. The commission plans to ask the Legislature to create a clear rule stating that neither drivers nor their passengers can smoke or have open packages of marijuana inside a vehicle, said Darrin Grondel, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Grondel said the goal is to mirror the state’s open container law, which says drivers can’t have open, partially consumed or unsealed containers of alcohol inside the passenger cabin of a car. An opened and recorked bottle of wine, for instance, should go in the trunk or a locked vehicle compartment, according to state law.

Initiative 502, which Washington state voters approved in 2012 to legalize recreational pot use, contained no language setting up the same rule for marijuana, Grondel said.

“Right now there’s nothing in statute that precludes someone from having marijuana in the open inside a car,” Grondel said. “You can’t have an open container of alcohol in the car while you’re driving ... so the same should be applicable to those that are smoking marijuana.”

Fueling the concern over pot-smoking in vehicles are recent numbers showing an increase in Washington drivers testing positive for marijuana use.

In 2012, 18.6 percent of blood samples taken from suspected impaired drivers in Washington tested positive for delta-9 THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that causes people to get high, according to the Washington State Toxicology Laboratory.

That number rose to 25 percent of tested blood samples statewide in 2013, the first year I-502 was in effect.

The number of people testing positive for a metabolite of THC — indicating marijuana use within recent days or weeks — also went up last year, to 40 percent, according to the state toxicology lab.

“It’s a huge concern,” Grondel said, although he noted that the state hasn’t seen a corresponding increase in traffic accidents and fatalities so far.

The Washington State Patrol is also looking to clarify how law enforcement officers should handle drivers who might be smoking pot inside their vehicles, or who have passengers who might be smoking marijuana, said State Patrol Chief John Batiste.

Initiative 502 prohibits smoking marijuana in public view. However, many people don’t think of their car as a public place, even though an officer may consider the situation differently, Batiste said.

“There is a perception that there is privacy in the vehicle, when it comes to being able to smoke inside,” Batiste said. “We’re looking to give officers a tool to handle such behavior.”

Alison Holcomb, the Seattle lawyer who drafted I-502, said she supports a new statute clarifying that smoking marijuana isn’t allowed in vehicles. Having the laws governing marijuana use mimic those for open alcohol containers “makes sense,” she said.

“Much of I-502 is based on our liquor laws,” Holcomb said.

Both Holcomb and Grondel said there needs to be more data collected about how Washington’s legalized marijuana system is affecting road safety.

Holcomb said it’s hard to tell from the state’s early numbers, partly because the state toxicology lab began testing more blood samples for traces of marijuana when I-502 went into effect. Prior to 2013, the state did not routinely test blood samples for marijuana if the driver’s blood-alcohol concentration was above 0.10. Now it tests all samples from suspected impaired drivers.

Grondel said the state is still evaluating how an increase in drivers testing positive for marijuana might affect traffic accident rates.

“We just don’t have enough data to say one way or another,” Grondel said. “We’re just watching and looking.”