The Bitter Pill

October 29, 2011

The Stranger’s Dominic Holden has come out pretty strongly against the patients who oppose New Approach Washington’s proposed initiative to the legislature, I-502. The well-funded, poll-driven initiative has been loudly criticized by several long-time activists in our state who balk at the portion that would introduce a per se DUI statue.

Harsh penalties for irresponsible cannabis consumers? What’s not to like?

Purists argue that it’s already illegal in Washington State to drive impaired. Furthermore, you’re much more likely to find a pothead lingering at a green light than engaging in the aggressive, risk-taking behavior seen in drunk drivers. After all, research shows that frequent cannabis users are acclimated to the effects of the drug, and tend to compensate for their impairment by driving more slowly.

In the court of opinion, none of that matters. Telling a fellow parent that stoned drivers are already delivering pizzas in their neighborhood won’t allay their justifiable concerns.

A “per se DUI” means that if a blood test indicates the presence of active THC metabolites above a certain level, you’re as good as guilty. For an infrequent user, it probably means you’re impaired. So what’s the fuss?

Take the case study of William Breathes, a medical marijuana patient and blogger for the Denver Westword. Breathes took a voluntary blood test the day after medicating and failed spectacularly. A few months later, the Colorado Legislature voted against passing per se laws.

In 2010, per se limits looked like a politically savvy way forward. Unlike the inactive metabolites in the urine, active metabolites in the blood are far more likely to indicate impairment. Since then, however, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano has unequivocally stated that “it is virtually impossible to make inferences regarding a subject’s impairment based upon the presence of THC alone.”

So let’s say you’re a patient and cannabis controls your pain and your spasms. You get stopped for a busted tail light in Clark County, and your car smells like cannabis. A per se DUI statute means you have no ability to mount an effective defense in court. The blood test alone is enough to find you guilty, even if you are habituated to your medicine and therefore not impaired.

Undoubtedly, it pays to be practical in one’s politics and move incrementally. A great example of this is I-75, Seattle’s lowest law enforcement priority, which Holden himself helped pass.

At Sensible Washington, we maintain that when it comes to ending cannabis prohibition, repeal *is* incremental politics. The end of our state’s alcohol prohibition worked the exact same way. Alcohol went unregulated for years, and the sky did not fall. You can’t regulate illegal activity, which means you either start by ending prohibition (as Missouri and Colorado and others are looking to do) or spend your efforts on symbolic victories.

We’re not saying that activists wouldn’t be wise to join together and stand on common ground. (GROW HEMP. GROW HEMP. GROW HEMP.) However, it’s not hard to see why this would be a bitter pill for patients to swallow, even for those not on chemo.

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