Politics & Government

Drive high, keep your license? State officials want fix in law

If you’re driving drunk and fail a breath test, state law says you automatically lose your driver’s license.

But if you’re driving while high on marijuana — even if a blood test proves it — state officials say the law lets you keep driving.

It’s an inequity the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and the state Department of Licensing want the Legislature to fix next year.

Officials said the gap in state law is especially problematic given that only a blood test can determine how much THC — the psychotropic in marijuana — is in a driver’s blood.

Under Washington’s legal marijuana law, those who get caught driving with a blood content of at least 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter are subject to an automatic driver’s license suspension of 90 days or more.

Yet right now, the Licensing Department can’t enforce that part of the law, said Shelly Baldwin, spokeswoman for the Traffic Safety Commission.

“We’ve got this new law on the books that is only being enforced through the courts, and not through the administrative license suspensions, which is what the (legal THC) limit was supposed to be about,” Baldwin said.

The problem arose after voters approved legalizing recreational marijuana use in 2012.

Lawmakers changed the state’s driving-under-the-influence laws in 2013 to respond to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that drawing someone’s blood without a search warrant is often unconstitutional, even if the person is suspected of driving impaired.

In the process, state officials say, they inadvertently took away the Licensing Department’s power to suspend someone’s license if a properly administered blood test showed the driver was high.

A proposed fix to the law didn’t make it through the Legislature this year, but the Licensing Department and the Traffic Safety Commission plan to try again when lawmakers reconvene in January.

“What we’re trying to do is get the language cleaned back up to allow us to take administrative action in cases where a blood test is properly done,” said Brad Benfield, spokesman for the Licensing Department.

Administrative license suspensions are an important way to penalize impaired drivers, given the unpredictability and drawn-out nature of the the legal process, Benfield said.

“It just helps to hold people more accountable,” he said. “A lot of times somebody will get pulled over and they’ll test over the legal limit. And down the road or during the criminal track, they’ll plead down or have their case dismissed.”

Suspending a driver’s license immediately after a positive blood test is “one of those tools that has been proven in study after study to prevent DUI fatalities,” Baldwin said.

It’s a particularly effective deterrent for young adults who are more likely to take risks and less likely to consider the consequences of driving impaired, she said.

“It hits their pocketbook, it hits their freedom, it hits their ability to drive — that’s a message that they pay more attention to,” Baldwin said.

“When we weaken that law, we also weaken that tool to reduce the number of people who are driving impaired and the number of people who are dying in impaired driving crashes.”